BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
“One day I’ll have a kale salad, the next day a chili dog,” Don Henley said a few songs into his Saturday night special at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
The veteran musician offered the statement as an explanation of the genre and career-spanning set to come for the next 2 ½- hours, but it could also describe the juxtaposition of Henley himself.
He’s a brilliant songwriter, of which the audience was reminded with early appearances by his deeply melancholy, musically sublime “The Heart of the Matter” and the omnipresent prom song of the late-‘80s, “The End of the Innocence.”
His classic hits are a visceral mishmash of hurt, betrayal and hope and many of the new tracks on “Cass County,” his first solo album in 15 years that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country albums chart, sigh with vivid stories of droughts and shifting marital tides.
But Henley the performer is – and always has been – a stoic presence. He’s inarguably a deft storyteller, sharing behind-the-scenes tales of recording Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose” with Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert and joking about re-connecting with a long-ago romantic dalliance who inspired the “cautionary tale,” the driving “That Old Flame.”
But his staunch no-phones rule, communicated to fans through a barrage of signs and strictly enforced by a security team, could sour some loyalists. As well, it paints Henley, the emotional songwriter with the hearty, textured voice, as a rigid crankypants.
Of course, anyone who attended the “History of the Eagles” tour at Philips Arena in 2014 should be well-aware of Henley’s preferences, and judging by the applause that greeted his wry comment that new single “Take a Picture of This” “has nothing to do with the camera policy,” most in the sold-out crowd didn’t mind being forced to give their undivided attention to, you know, the guy onstage.
While Henley, who looked like a polished English professor in his dark jeans, vest and button-down shirt, didn’t move much from behind the microphone until the encore of “The Boys of Summer” when he sidled up to guitarist Steuart Smith, he kept the audience engaged with interesting covers, including an emotive read of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and an immaculate stroll through Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
As expected, the songs of “Cass County” dominated the 23-song set list, which deftly balanced the new material with gems from his ‘80s-era albums (no Eagles tunes so far on this sixth date of the tour, perhaps because Henley and the band have been playing those songs the past three years on the recently concluded “History” journey).
Eerie keyboards and bass ushered in “New York Minute,” one of his most atmospheric songs, and Henley and his 10-piece band effortlessly pivoted into the always-relevant “Dirty Laundry,” complete with staccato keyboard taps and a steamy guitar solo from Chris Holt.
He relied on the talents of a trio of comely backup singers to pinch hit for guests on the new record. Lily Elise and Erica Swindell nicely fulfilled the roles of Martina McBride (“That Old Flame”) and Dolly Parton (“When I Stop Dreaming”), while Lara Johnston’s sultry pipes covered Stevie Nicks’ territory on “It Don’t Matter to the Sun,” a Garth Brooks ballad from the ill-fated Chris Gaines experiment.
Several times during the show, including the opening “Seven Bridges Road,” a Steve Young cover and Eagles live favorite, Henley positioned his band in a semi-circle center stage to perform soaring harmony vocals.
The arrangement, like the vintage radios that hung above the stage, was another nod to Henley’s appreciation of his musical roots. His new songs, slathered with pedal steel guitar, mandolin and violin, are more genuine than most of the pop tunes masquerading on the country charts these days and Henley and his band delivered them with care.
He might be mercurial, but don’t question his authenticity.
- “Seven Bridges Road”
- “No, Thank You”
- “The End of the Innocence”
- “Praying for Rain”
- “That Old Flame”
- “The Heart of the Matter”
- “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”
- “I Put a Spell on You”
- “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield”
- “New York Minute”
- “Dirty Laundry”
- “Take a Picture of This”
- “Words Can Break Your Heart”
- “The Last Worthless Evening”
- “When I Stop Dreaming”
- “The Cost of Living”
- “Bramble Rose”
- “It Don’t Matter to the Sun”
- “Too Much Pride”
- “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”
- “Where I Am Now”
- “The Boys of Summer”
- “Train in the Distance”
- “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”