The death yesterday of Glenn Frey presents something of a paradox. The dominant feeling, unavoidably, is one of sadness. There have several major artistic deaths already in 2016, some famous (David Bowie, Lemmy), others overlooked (Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin). While Frey certainly belongs in the former category, his musical legacy illuminates a division.
To many, the music Frey created as co-pilot of the Eagles was a benchmark representation of the country-rock sound bred in Southern California during the 1970s, a style that held considerable sway over the contemporary country music industry that began engulfing the charts during the 1990s. In short, there would be no Garth Brooks without the Eagles.
Others will quickly pick up the argument that such succession among the pop and country ranks wasn’t such a great thing. We’ll leave that argument for another time. And in the interest of simple respect, we’ll shrug off the later Eagles records along with Frey’s solo work, much of which represented a smugness that often seemed like a corrupted adult version of the Eagles more unassuming beginnings.
It was with no small amount irony that Lexington was witness to one of Frey’s — and the Eagles’ — final concerts. The last of several extensive reunion tours was winding down when the band played at Rupp Arena last July. There was no hint of illness in Frey’s singing or his overall performance. It was an evening of living pop history, one that he and band co-founder Don Henley upheld with authority.
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The performance did little to alter my general dislike of the band’s final ’70s albums, Hotel California and The Long Run, which dominated the second half of the concert. I realize I’m in the minority on that score. The Rupp crowd’s acceptance of those songs heartily countered that estimation. But what struck me was how strong — and, at times, rather innocent — their early music sounded. Maybe it was the decades of watching countless bar bands sleepwalking through Eagles covers or classic rock radio’s unyielding airplay of the band’s records that deadened me to the songs’ craftsmanship. But hearing Frey and Henley open the show with a duo version of Saturday Night, a forgotten country relic from the Eagles’ self-titled 1972 debut, brushed aside the excess and celeb status of the later years. On simple, uncontested display was the embodiment of the Eagles’ — and certainly Frey’s —best work. It was a rewind to the beginning of the long run, a trek Frey travelled unashamedly as a celebrity. Luckily the musician under the veneer got a chance, during those final nights onstage, to reclaim some of that simpler glory.
Walter Tunis is celebrating 35 years of covering music for the Herald-Leader.