The other night, I found myself watching Hell Freezes Over, the 1994 reunion of the Eagles, for the second time in a few weeks.
Why view a 27-year-old concert video of a group whose work is mostly 40 years old? I think a random fan of The Music could watch this AXSTV special (originally on MTV), and enjoy it on face value. But those like me who watch the show, and know the Eagles’ back story, and that of its members, and have some sense of their body of work, will definitely get it.
For starters, the title of the concert: When the Eagles — at that point, a record-selling monster, with 200 million-plus units sold — broke up in 1980, founding member Don Henley said they would play together again when … well, fill in the blanks. Co-founder, and song-writing partner, Glenn Frey, basically said the same thing. So the concert video opens with Frey’s overdub: “For the record, we never broke up; we just took a 14-year vacation."
It’s only minutes into the video that it’s obvious that, however long the vacation was, they never lost their chemistry. The concert opens with the founding members and the latter comers — Timothy B. Schmitt and former James Gang and Barnstormer Joe Walsh — lined up in a row on stage, each illuminated by a separate spotlight — no frontman/men.
The opening bars leave the audience — likely mostly diehard Eagle fans — clueless about what’s coming. Neo-flamenco guitar stylings by Walsh and Don Felder, bongos by some studio sideman and percussion flourishes by Henley — even I, a longtime fan of the band, did not recognize what was coming, on my first viewing.
What it was, was “Hotel California.” Why open a reunion concert held a decade and a half after their disassociation with that particular song? Because that 1976 song perhaps summed up as well as anything the upside, and the downside, of the Eagles in their prime. “They stabbed me with their steely knives/but they just can’t kill the beast,” a line apocryphally attributed to the Eagles’ competition with Steely Dan for the kingship of the Los Angeles rock hierarchy at that time. (I’d give the edge to Fagan and Becker at that time, but I only get one vote …)
The concert thereafter is a tour through the group’s greatest hits, from the very early years until the breakup, but with some songs included that were literally written and thrown in at the last minute. (And were, understandably, and in my opinion, inferior.) But not just of the oeuvre of the Eagles — also of Henley, who had a lot of post-Eagle and pre-reunion success. But, curiously, not much from Frey, who also had some solo success. And Walsh, who had some success with the James Gang, and with his successor band Barnstorm.
The music of Hell Freezes Over is nearly equaled by the images. Henley, in my opinion one of the greatest vocalists of the second generation of The Music, is exposed instrumentally as a percussionist — of the occasions he is shown with a stringed instrument, in only one of them does he actually strum it, rather than beat out time on it.
Walsh, known over the years for some quirky songs, is unsurprisingly slightly goofy in performance, but also obviously a pretty good guitarist. Timothy Schmit has hair that a lot of ladies would kill for, and a voice in a higher register than many of the fairer sex can manage, but his bass playing and songwriting are also showcased. I don’t know how long Frey, who died in 2016, was ailing, but he seems ill at ease during the concert; despite that, he also is one of the best vocalists of his generation.
But the musician that impressed me the most was Felder, like Schmit an add-on to the original Eagles’ lineup a couple years after their debut. He appears to be the best guitarist in the group — his flamenco-like work in the intro to “Hotel California” is impressive — and also does pretty well on the mandolin. (He also played banjo and slide guitar — learning the latter from Allman Brother Duane, who knew — on the group’s tours and other albums.)
But the band fired Felder in 2001, seven years after the concert, initiating a series of lawsuits and counter-suits. It was a flashback to the acrimony that led to the Eagles’ breakup in 1980, at the seeming height of their popularity. After that, asked when the band might play together, Henley gave the answer that became the title of the reunion concert, tour and live album.
The show’s existence, and the manner in which it was put together, also put the lie to Frey’s 1982 comment on the break-up: “I just rule out the possibility of putting the Eagles back together for a Lost Youth and Greed tour.” The album was a No. 1, and sold over 9 million copies; the tour made a ton of money, too, as no doubt did the DVDs of the show.
All that aside, Hell Freezes Over is a great musical experience. It distills, albeit sometimes erratically, what made the Eagles as good as they were: the vocals, the songwriting, the musicianship, the topicality. It’s a show that I can, and will, watch over and over again.