Throughout the history of Southern California rock, two bands have loomed largest in America's popular imagination: the Beach Boys and the Eagles.
While the Beach Boys presented a more wholesome lifestyle involving fun (fun, fun), surfing, and chasing girls, the Eagles sold more records, attracted more groupies, preferred dusk to midday and smoked more pot. Or, as Glenn Frey said during the Eagles' return to the Forum on Wednesday: "The Beach Boys were pioneers. The Eagles were settlers."
Playing the first of six nights at the beautifully renovated Inglewood arena, the band presented a three-plus hour retrospective dubbed "History of the Eagles," a sort of concert companion to the band's 2013 documentary of the same name. Over the night, Frey, Don Henley and bandmates guided fans through the peaks and valleys of their catalog -- "Hotel California," "Lyin' Eyes," "Take It to the Limit" and more -- offering everything your average Eagles fan would want to hear, with plenty of bonus Joe Walsh wildness.
Theirs is a fascinating history, one that unfolded over the evening with instrumental clarity, pretty harmonies and many guitar solos. Delivering steady, stoned ballads and relatively revved up rockers with fellow members Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit and, for some of the night's best moments, founding member Bernie Leadon, the Eagles presented a valid argument that the best of their hits warrant continued exploration.
The messages that the Eagles spread about California life were, after all, some of the most prominent of the era. Delivered over FM airwaves at the peak of terrestrial radio's power and ingrained into the minds of anyone living through the 1970s and '80s, the Eagles' best songs captured a California settling into itself, more concerned with its valleys and hanging out than surf and sun.
The cover of "Hotel California" alone is one of the defining California images of the '70s, an updated version of orange crate art that exudes warmth and mystery. For better or worse, the Eagles helped to further characterize the region in the cultural imagination (and helped propel the careers of both David Geffen and Irving Azoff).
"Peaceful, Easy Feeling" and "Tequila Sunrise," which the band performed with Leadon on guitar, testified to California's calm beauty. "Witchy Woman" and "Hotel California" suggested the region's mysticism. "One of These Nights" traced a longing for "someone to be kind to in between the dark and the light," and in the song's context it's easy to imagine strobing streetlights and palm trees flying by on the way to a midnight rendezvous.
Even at their 1970s peak, though, the Eagles were about as active onstage as the robotic Kraftwerk (but far less funky), and on Wednesday they certainly didn't strain themselves. Once described as less performing than "loitering" in concert, the band seemed to expel more energy changing instruments than they did playing them.
At one point, in fact, Frey chided fans near the front for standing and dancing during the ballads, offering further evidence of his reputation as a spoilsport. (In his defense, he was coming to the aid of those seated and unable to see due to the dancers.)
The exception, as always, was Walsh, whose personality shone brightest. The lead guitarist, who joined the Eagles in 1975 after already achieving success on his own, was given generous space to celebrate that work. With the Eagles backing him, Walsh played his much more raucous hits, including "Life's Been Good" and "Rocky Mountain Way," as well as his jam with the James Gang, "Funk #49."
Since this review didn't lead with news of rioting AARP members in Inglewood, the Eagles indeed also performed their most enduring song, "Hotel California," the Don Henley-sung excursion into a creepy, wine-less hotel. They did it as one of three encores, replicating that spooky groove and wailing double-guitar solo with precision.
Henley, in typically fine voice -- he seems to have been pacing himself for the proverbial long run since the beginning -- offered the iconic lyrics that have captivated generations. He sang of dark desert highways, Tiffany-twisted minds and "mirrors on the ceiling, cheap champagne on ice." Heard in its natural habitat -- the oval inside the Forum -- added extra heft.
As Frey and Walsh punctuated the song's vision on guitars and the exquisitely engineered sound floated through the arena, the thousands surrounding the band echoed every word as one of the most mercurial California stories ever sung went on.