Don Henley arrived on the Minnesota State Fair grandstand stage Thursday with his usual stern face. When the crowd cheered, he merely nodded. And darned if Mr. Self Serious didn’t melt the coldness before you could say “the Eagles don’t exist anymore.”
Henley broke the ice with gorgeous, twangy, a cappella harmonies on the opening “Seven Bridges Road,” a staple at Eagles concerts. He soon diffused his stiffness with humor, giving a shout-out to Jerry Seinfeld for helping to make “Witchy Woman” a hit, thanking a fan for yelling a “rare” request to “turn it up” and pointing out how a carnival ride in his eye view was turning his stomach.
Henley, who is prone to pontificating in concert, kept the politics to a minimum (a short speech about how he’s tired of the current political season as a prelude to a cheeky, crowd-pleasing reading of Tears for Fears 1985 fave, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”). He offered only one long-winded back story about a song (the seldom-performed-live “The Last Resort” from the Eagles’ “Hotel California” album).
More important, Henley kept the passion to the maximum. He seemed totally invested in his solo hits “The Boys of Summer” and “Heart of the Matter” (which resonated as if it were as much about the late Eagles co-leader Glenn Frey instead of a former lover) and roared through the Eagles’ signatures “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California.”
In the 135-minute, 22-song set, there seemed to be an Eagles number at least every third song. But the concert focused on material from Henley’s first foray into country music and his first solo album in 15 years, last fall’s “Cass County.”
To try to establish yourself as a new country artist at age 69 is probably not the most prudent strategy when such 50-something country superstars as Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson can’t get their new material on the radio these days. But Henley is about art, not business. (He even made a crack about how his 15-member band wasn’t very profitable but it was fun.)
The album features guest appearances by Alison Krauss, Trisha Yearwood, Merle Haggard, Mick Jagger and others. In concert, Henley relied on three young female backup singers to fill the heels that Dolly Parton, Martina McBride, Stevie Nicks and Miranda Lambert did on the record.
It’s obvious that Henley has always loved harmonizing — whether with Frey in the Eagles, a young woman (or women), or the dudes in his extra-large solo band at the State Fair.
The most memorable of the “Cass County” pieces were the sweet, melancholy “Bramble Rose”; “When I Stop Dreaming,” an old 1950s Louvin Brothers cry-in-your-beer tune that featured Erica Swindell on clarion voice and goo-goo eyes, and “Train in the Distance,” a pretty, swirling bluegrass number that recounted Henley’s boyhood pastime of putting coins on the railroad tracks and picking them up red-hot after the train passed over them.
As much as the three female singers added to the texture and dynamics of the country pieces and Eagles selections, the secret weapon Thursday was guitarist Steuart Smith, who had toured with the Eagles since 2001. He is masterfully expressive, and his exchange with guitarist Chris Holt on “Hotel California” made 10,590 concertgoers never want to leave.
The Eagles and Henley have provided a soundtrack for baby boomers for nearly 45 years. His early solo ouevre can be heavy on cynicism and bitterness. While the Eagles material plows some of the same terrain, the energy and playfulness of “Life in the Fast Lane” reminds you that all would not be serious if Don Henley ruled the world.
He waited until the end to address a topic on every concertgoer’s mind — the death of Frey in January. Before his final song, Henley pointed out how this was a tough year for musicians and music fans and thanked them for their “kind words and condolences.”
“I want to do the first song I ever wrote with a guy named Glenn Frey,” he said. “This is for him.”
With violin, viola and a full band, the arrangement might have been too busy, but “Desperado” had the right feeling of hope in these serious times.