Eagles Are Their Own Special Guests at Day One of Classic East Festival
"I may be older, but at least I got to see all the cool bands." So read a T-shirt worn by multiple attendees of Saturday night's (July 29) Classic East festival at Citi Field in Queens, New York, encapsulating the generational pride the fest is meant to exemplify with its lineup of '70s legacy acts.
The half-dozen Classic bands first appeared over two nights at the concert's West Coast incarnation two weeks earlier, and the East swing kicked off on Saturday with The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and the Eagles -- the latter making their second appearance with next-gen Eaglet Deacon Frey, replacing his father, the late co-founder Glenn Frey.
Of course, if "cool" was really the objective, it's debatable whether these are the bands to make the case. The three groups were arguably cool in the '70s, definitely not cool in the late '80s or '90s, and at least potentially cool again in the 21st century, as their songs have outlasted any other meaningful cultural associations the bands once had. Nonetheless, those squaring to be hip would certainly have been better served last night about seven miles west at the Panorama Festival on Randall's Island, where Tame Impala headlined a day's worth of cutting-edge underground rock favorites.
Panorama may have had the cred, but Classic East definitely had the hits: Over 40 combined top 40 Hot 100 hits for the three acts on Saturday night, far more than the 73 acts over three nights at Panorama put together. The Doobie Brothers kicked off the night with one of 'em, "Jesus Is Just Alright," revving up what turned out to be an impressively blistering set from the California rockers. The band was locked in and absolutely pumped to be there, and frontman Tom Johnston remains the picture of '70s prosperity: fat moustache, luxurious black hair, and muscular, finger-pointing swagger.
Sadly, as at Classic West, longtime DoobBro Michael McDonald (who replaced Johnston in the band largely for health reasons in the mid-'70s) was nowhere to be found. That meant no "It Keeps You Running," "Minute By Minute," or of course, "What a Fool Believes" -- arguably the band's biggest hit, though one strictly untouchable without McDonald's singular blubbering. (The Doobies did perform his "Taking It to the Streets," however, with founding guitarist Patrick Simmons and newer bassist John Cowan combining for a respectable vocal facsimile.)
It would've been great to see McDonald, who left the group decades ago but still pops up with them occasionally -- could've stuck around to reprise his backing vocals on Steely Dan's "Peg," too! -- but the set may have been more coherent for his absence, since the synth-soul jams of his Doobies era would've fit oddly around the group's tighter, bluesier early material. And when a band can close out a pre-encore with a troika of stone FM classics like "Black Water," "Long Train Coming" and "China Grove," it's hard to really grouse at them for the songs they left on the table.
Pivotal members missing would be a recurring theme throughout the evening, however: One song into their expert 13-song set, Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen addressed the absence of the band's guitarist and co-founder, Walter Becker, who also missed Classic West, both with illness. Fagen said Becker's recovering and you certainly hope he is; in the meantime, his contributions were ably covered -- in large part by the band's old instrumentalist friend Larry Carlton -- and Fagen remained in high spirits, swaying goofily at the piano and grinning widely from behind his comically loose tie.
Steely Dan's set was marvelous -- energetic, proficient and predictably virtuosic, with solos zooming from every direction, courtesy of trombones, melodicas, drums and most instruments in between. The band played at least one song from each of their seven original studio albums (no luck, Two Against Nature Grammy voters) but leaned most heavily on the last three; the two hits from 1980's original farewell Gaucho ("Hey Nineteen" and "Time Out of Mind") sounded especially limber. The band skipped breakthrough smash "Do It Again" but played their debut's David Palmer-sung classic-rock staple "Dirty Work," giving backing vocalists "The Danettes" an opportunity to prove the song could've been a dynamite Rufus and Chaka Khan ballad in another life. And Fagen had the best stage banter of the night, at one point asking the crowd to "Give one of those 'millennial whoops'." (Hey, he must be a Billlboard.co reader!)
The Dan's portion of the gig ended 20 minutes ahead of schedule -- which, combined with Bob Seger's surprise appearance during the Eagles' set at Classic West, had the crowd buzzing about who the band's special guest could possibly be this time. (John Mellencamp? John Fogerty? Post-Panorama Frank Ocean doing "American Wedding"??) The answer: Nobody! The Eagles' nearly two-and-a-half-hour set came and went without a single unexpected visitor. Sorry, NY fans -- hopefully it means twice the surprise guests during Fleetwood Mac on Sunday?
Regardless, the Eagles brought more than enough of their own firepower to make up for their lack of supplementary celebs. Of course, the band already has two solo stars in Don Henley and Joe Walsh (apologies, Timothy B. Schmit), and they've added a third in country legend Vince Gill -- who also helped fill in for Glenn Frey at Classic West, and who the band introduced on Saturday as "one of the best singer-songwriters and guitarists this country has ever produced." Gill acquitted himself admirably on Frey country-rock standards "Lyin' Eyes" and "Tequila Sunrise," and even played the Randy Meisner part on proto-power ballad "Take It to the Limit" -- though he couldn't quite commit to the song's trademark falsetto squeals on the outro.
But again, all eyes were most squarely on young Deacon, a positively eerie dead-ringer for his younger pops (with perhaps a touch of Eli Manning thrown in), who seemed humbled, but not overwhelmed by the opportunity to step into dad's shoes in front of many thousands of long-time fans. He handled it like a pro, and he sounded awesome -- not that replacing Glenn Frey's plaintive twang is as high a degree-of-difficulty ask as mimicking Michael McDonald, but it was still stunning how quickly his crooning became inconspicuous. "It's all a little tender," Deacon admitted of being back in New York, where his father passed back in January 2016. "But with all you guys, and these guys behind me supporting me, it should be pretty good."
It wasn't only the roster that packed no surprises at the show last night -- the set list was also identical to the Eagles' rundown from Classic West, with the sole addition of Don Henley's 1990 minor solo hit "New York Minute," presumably for geographic reasons. Still, the songs chosen left little to argue with, providing a couple well-selected deep cuts (sweeping Hotel California closer "The Last Resort" and funky Long Run talkbox exercise "Those Shoes") and otherwise just hammering the hits.
As the band serpentined through their classics, you really got a sense of just how many things they did well: They might be most frequently recalled as paragons of laid-back California country rock, but they were similarly adept at widescreen arena rock, smooth pop-soul and even blue-eyed disco, their combination of gorgeous harmonies, scorching guitar leads and a swinging rhythm section making them one of the most crossover-capable bands of the '70s. Not many groups could go from "Take It Easy" to "One of These Nights" in three years' time; that the Eagles played the songs back-to-back on Saturday without it even seeming weird was just a testament to how much we take their versatility for granted.
If one were to find fault with the Eagles' set list, it would be that it took too extended a dip into Joe Walsh's solo and James Gang material -- four of the band's final eight songs, including "Rocky Mountain Way" to kick off the second encore. Great songs, all, and it was especially righteous hearing "In the City" in The Warriors' hometown, but it felt like a lot of Iso Joe, especially without much solo Henley (or solo Frey, natch, though it would've been a treat to hear the kid take on "You Belong to the City") to balance. Nonetheless, the night ended the right way: With Henley leading an elegiac "Desperado," the first song he and Frey ever wrote together. Don's voice sounds a little pinched after 45 years, but that only adds hard-earned pathos to the song's "You ain't getting any younger" message. Elaine Benes' boyfriend woulda loved it.
Unlike at West, when Henley & Co. seemed to hint that the two Classic concerts could represent the band's last ride, there were fewer moments of finality at East -- mostly just gratitude. And with Deacon and possibly Gill in tow, there's no real reason the group shouldn't be able to continue on: The band sounds about as on-point as ever, and festivals like Desert Trip and Classic East/West are proving there's still a market for headliners of the Eagles' age and stature. The kids at least deserve a chance to try to catch up to the older folks, right?