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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Henley Gets to the Heart of the Matter : Singer Is More at Ease on Second Leg of ‘Innocence’ Tour

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Are tours sweeter the second time around?

Don Henley’s winning two-hour performance Saturday night at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre showed that they may be--as long as you are dealing with superior singer-songwriters.

The man who helped make the Eagles one of the most acclaimed bands of the ‘70s only to achieve even greater depth as a songwriter on his own in the ‘80s was more appealing than he was in 1989 on the first leg of the current tour.

His vocals on songs from 1989’s “The End of the Innocence” album were more tailored--and his own manner was more relaxed.

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The lure of seeing a performer on the first leg of a hot tour is the chance to hear songs from a new album for the first time. You can feel the creative tension that grows out of the artist still working out his interpretations of the songs as well as his anxiety over how they will be received by the audience.

In the past, when artists released an album every year or so, we would usually only see our top performers under such circumstances. Now, the time between albums is often two or three years, causing many artists to do extended tours that take them to some cities twice in support of the same album.

Henley’s tour--which also includes a second Irvine Meadows stop on Friday and a Santa Barbara County Bowl show on Saturday--is the first in a series of “return” appearances by artists who are in bringing a new sophistication and maturity to pop and rock. The others are Paul Simon and Sting, who begin brief Southern California visits Sept. 27 and Oct. 2, respectively.

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In 1989, Henley’s music was excellent, but his manner was a bit uptight. After the no-frills stance of the Eagles, he seemed self-consciously fashionable in his baggy suit and pony-tail, and he seemed ill-at-ease between songs--as if obligated to speak as impressively as he does in his lyrics.

Not so Saturday, where he came on stage following an energetic but anonymous set by former-Bangle Susanna Hoffs. Henley has sung such songs as the tender, revealing “The Heart of the Matter” and the wistful, questioning “The End of the Innocence” so many times that he is comfortable with them--and able to search for new nuances or wrinkles that give them even added character.

At the same time, Henley, dressed informally in a bright spotted shirt and black pants, appeared more down-to-earth--warmly dedicating one song to the people of the Soviet Union and a second to Pee-wee Herman. Henley, who supplemented his solo material with six songs from his old band days, did not feel compelled to say something during every pause. In the words of one of his best recent songs, he simply cut to the heart of the matter.

This rock veteran--who was backed Saturday by a six-piece band plus three female back-up singers--demonstrated long ago that he can live quite comfortably outside the Eagles as an artist. It’s now apparent that he can function equally well alone as a performer.

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