If you’re going to play a classic album in its entirety, and in sequence, you might as well have some fun with it. Thus the opening scene of Thursday’s performance at the Moody Center by the Eagles: A man in a black trench coat slowly strolls from stage left to stage right, where he encounters a record player and a copy of the band’s iconic 1977 LP “Hotel California.” He places the album on the turntable, slips the needle into the groove, and voila! The curtain rises and the band kicks into the title track.
It’s a nice mix of campy staging and sincere nostalgic drama from one of the biggest bands in pop music history. And if any classic rock album warrants such start-to-finish treatment, it’s probably “Hotel California,” by far the biggest-selling of the band’s seven studio albums with more than 30 million sold worldwide.
Only the group’s iconic greatest-hits album has sold more, which explains why the rest of the concert (after a 20-minute intermission) surveyed almost all of the band’s top singles. When you’ve had as many hits as the Eagles, that amounts to a long show: The band took the stage at 8:10 p.m. and didn’t depart until 11:15 p.m.
The “Hotel California” section was the highlight. Don Henley, the lone founding member left after the death of Glenn Frey in 2016, began on drums and lead vocals for the title track, which set the tone for a sterling performance of the album by an eight-piece touring band. The video backdrop cleverly cast California images as if seen from a hotel’s bay window, complete with windowpane grids.
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Country superstar Vince Gill, who joined after Frey’s death, did a beautiful job as lead vocalist on the second song, “New Kid in Town.” Henley came out front for the rocker “Life in the Fast Lane,” joining Gill and stage-right duelers Joe Walsh and Steuart Smith to form a formidable wall of four electric guitars, along with bassist Timothy B. Schmit.
The real payoff, though, came on “Wasted Time,” a more reflective number that closes side one of “Hotel California” and is revisited on a brief orchestral reprise to start side two. (Yes, they went through the LP-flipping ritual as well; this time a woman with flowing blond locks crossed the stage to turn the album over.)
The Eagles spared no expense here, recruiting about 40 string players from the local Violet Crown Orchestra to exquisitely fill out the sound for those two numbers. Conducting the orchestra was music legend Jim Ed Norman, who met Henley at University of North Texas in 1968 and followed him to California, where he became an accomplished composer/arranger (and later president of Warner Bros. Records’ Nashville division for two decades).
Side two of “Hotel California” didn’t have the hits that side one produced, but its closing track, “The Last Resort,” is a sweeping seven-minute epic about paradise lost in the name of progress. The orchestra returned for the dramatic finale, this time supplemented by about 20 members of the local choir United Voices. “That was for the Austin I used to know,” Henley said at the end, underscoring that the song and album’s loss-of-innocence theme stretches beyond the Golden State.
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Much has been made of the Moody Center’s sonic improvements over the neighboring Erwin Center, where the Eagles made their last Austin appearance (with Frey) in 2015. This was the first of the four concerts I’ve attended at the Moody in its opening month where those acoustic upgrades were gloriously evident: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a band sound as pristine in an arena as in Wednesday’s opening set.
Because the “Hotel California” album’s run-time is about 45 minutes, and because the Eagles had so many other hits to cover in the second half, the concert’s structure was inevitably unbalanced. The subsequent 15 songs (plus a four-song encore) that followed the intermission lasted more than twice as long as the first set.
Not that the nearly sold-out crowd minded. They offered thunderous cheers for Gill on several occasions as he did his best on songs Frey used to sing, including “Tequila Sunrise,” “Already Gone” and “Lyin’ Eyes.” Walsh got his time to shine toward the end, serving up his 1970s solo hits “Life’s Been Good” and “Rocky Mountain Way” as well as “Funk #49” from his early years in the James Gang. “I had more fun being 20 in the ’70s than I am being 70 in the ’20s,” he cracked, earning his distinction as the Eagle with a sense of humor.
Henley continued moving back and forth between playing guitar out front and drums (or percussion) behind. His distinctive high tenor stood out on memorable hits such as “One of These Nights” and “Desperado.” The band also wisely included his 1984 solo smash “The Boys of Summer” in the encore. He also sang the show-closing ballad “The Best of My Love,” acknowledging co-writers Frey and J.D. Souther as the song began.
Bassist Schmit got his usual vocal spotlight on “I Can’t Tell You Why” and also took the vocal lead on “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” a Jack Tempchin song from the band’s 1972 self-titled debut that Frey sang on the album. A few changes in vocalists have happened recently; Frey’s son, Deacon Frey, toured with the group for several years after his father’s death but departed last month to pursue a solo career.
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They’ll do it all over again on Friday night at the Moody, which was built in part by the band’s manager, legendary music industry executive Irving Azoff. Pre-show entertainment on Thursday included a set by local rockers the Raccoon Brothers on the plaza stage at the arena’s west entrance.
Eagles in Austin 5/19 set list:
1. Hotel California
2. New Kid in Town
3. Life in the Fast Lane
4. Wasted Time
5. Wasted Time (Reprise)
6. Victim of Love
7. Pretty Maids All in a Row
8. Try and Love Again
9. The Last Resort
10. Seven Bridges Road
11. Take It Easy
12. One of These Nights
13. Peaceful Easy Feeling
14. Witchy Woman
15. Take It to the Limit
16. Tequila Sunrise
17. In the City
18. I Can’t Tell You Why
19. Lyin’ Eyes
20. Those Shoes
21. Life’s Been Good
22. Already Gone
23. Funk #49
24. Heartache Tonight
25. Rocky Mountain Way
27. The Boys of Summer
28. Best of My Love