At the onset of the Eagles’ last Rupp Arena concert, frontmen and lone mainstay members Glenn Frey and Don Henley entered from opposite sides of the stages.
Longtime fans might have viewed this as a coming together of two figurehead performers who helped define a ’70s Southern California rock community, one that would also dictate the direction of a country music generation decades later. But audiences also knew the Eagles carried a fair amount of in-house baggage over the years full of aggravated relationships that dissolved the band seemingly for good in 1980. The split, in fact, appeared so permanent that the title of a 1994 comeback album half-jokingly referenced the long-held prospect of a reunion: “Hell Freezes Over.”
Yet, here on a late July evening in 2015, with the Eagles long since re-solidified as a sagely and resiliently popular touring attraction, Frey and Henley opened the show without accompaniment, singing one of the few songs in a two-and-a-half hour program that was not a hit, a decidedly nostalgic folk reverie from the 1973 Eagles album “Desperado” called “Saturday Night.” It opened the third to last performance of a tour that began two years earlier. It was also the third to last performance Frey would give with the band.
“The guy played through pain for several years,” Henley said during a phone interview last month. “He hid it very well. I could see it in his fingers. His rheumatoid arthritis made his fingers swollen and bent. It was difficult for him many years. But like an old football player, he would get himself taped up and go out there on the field and play the game, so he hid it very well. But he was very uncomfortable for a long time.”
In January 2016, Frey died at the age of 67. In addition to rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, he had also developed pneumonia the preceding fall. His death placed the often tenuous future of the Eagles again in question. Did Henley, now the lone original member, sense this was the Eagles’ final bow?
“I didn’t sense it, no,” he said. “As we always say, the Eagles were breaking up from the day the Eagles got together. It was a constant, ongoing thing. But in the past decade or two, we had gotten into the habit of making a reassessment every January. We would stop touring, usually, in October and then go home for the holiday season. Then when January rolled around, we would all get on the phone together to reassess and see if everybody was willing to go on or not, because we were very conscious of everybody’s enthusiasm or lack thereof. We wanted everybody to be all in, so to speak, before we decided to continue.
“We always want to be able to deliver a quality show, a show that is up to the standards that the fans expect. When we feel we can no longer do that, then we’ll hang it up. So when that tour you were speaking about ended, we just thought we would take a two or three month break, then we would probably tour some more the following year. Then the tragedy happened in October. That’s really when Glenn fell ill. That’s when the pneumonia struck. So you never know what’s going to happen in this life. It’s full of unexpected events.”
With its Tuesday return to Rupp Arena, the Eagles boast two new members in Frey’s absence. The first is the late singer’s son, Deacon Frey, whose stage experience prior to joining was largely limited to benefit shows with his dad. But for Henley, his involvement was essential for the Eagles to continue.
“Deacon carries his father’s torch,” Henley said. “He carries his father’s spirit. It blows my mind sometimes when I’m sitting at the drums and I’m looking at the back of his head. His hair looks just like his dad’s did in 1974. It’s like déjà vu. We’re all like uncles to him, so it very much has a feeling of family. Having Deacon in the band is really the only way it made sense to me. It’s the only thing that, to me, would make it ethically alright to carry this on. And if he hadn’t been able to do it, I don’t know if we would be out there again this year.
“His first show with us was at Dodger Stadium, so that’s a pretty big leap for a young man. And he did it. He amazed all of us with his composure. But, of course, it’s still an emotional thing for him. Deacon is dealing with it, but he still has moments of emotional upheaval when he remembers his dad. But we all surround him with love and support.”
The other new recruit is distinguished country veteran Vince Gill, a prolific singer, guitarist and hitmaker, as well as part of the Nashville generation that found considerable inspiration in the country-esque verses and harmonies that drove early Eagles favorites like “Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
“Vince, of course, is just a natural fit,” Henley said. “After we decided to put Deacon in the band, Vince was the other obvious choice to come in. He adds years of experience and he’s an extraordinary singer, an extraordinary guitarist and a great songwriter, plus he’s having a really good time out here with us.”
Deacon Frey and Gill join Henley and the two other permanent Eagles — Joe Walsh (who joined in 1975) and Timothy B. Schmit (who joined in 1977). Will their flight continue after touring concludes this fall? Henley said that call will be made at a later time. Until then, he intends to journey on with a storied band whose entire lifespan has defied rock ’n’ roll odds.
“We are all acutely aware of what an extraordinary run we’ve had and how this band has had almost as many lives as a cat. We’re aware of that every day and every night. That gives us an edge, energy and will to continue, because we know how unusual our career has been and we know how fortunate we are.”
If you go
Opening: JD and the Straight Shot
When: 7 p.m. April 10
Where: Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine St.