The Nokia Theatre, the blindingly bright new gem of downtown Los Angeles night life, turned out to be two things Thursday during its opening night, the first of six shows by the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks. To the ears and well-cushioned backside, it was a high-class concert hall, with excellent acoustics, comfy upholstery and nearly flawless sightlines.
For the soul, the theater offered something else -- the excess stimulation only arena shows provide. Pulsing with screens, awash in colored spotlights and free of the haute-bourgeois aura that can sometimes make pop shows feel strange in older, more ornate theaters, the Nokia made it easy for 7,100 concertgoers to forget the steep cost of the night's tickets (face value of nearly $300 for orchestra seats) and cut loose.
As the Eagles boogied through two hours' worth of new songs and beloved hits, guys clinked cups of beer across the aisles. Couples pressed together, swaying to the music. Dads and teenage daughters linked arms and sang along to Don Henley's "Boys of Summer": "Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac."
This kind of raucous behavior does sometimes happen in theaters, but it's the essence of the arena-rock experience. It's a very hopeful sign for the Nokia that its first audience felt comfortable enough to dance and carouse; great pop shows run on the energy of an inspired crowd. A venue can as easily deaden the spirit of an audience as fuel it. The Nokia's atmosphere proved conducive to excitement.
This wasn't completely evident during the Dixie Chicks' set, which highlighted the theater's other strong qualities. The trio, augmented by a small brigade of sidemen, was rather staid at first, perhaps because this was the first show they'd played since winning five Grammy awards in February. Their vocal harmonies and rich, warm instrumentation showed off the hall's acoustical properties. But only after sprinting through the bluegrass breakdown "White Trash Wedding" did the band really come together.
Emily Robison's chops finally kicked in on banjo, and Martie Maguire followed suit on fiddle. Singer Natalie Maines hit her stride singing "Not Ready to Make Nice," which has become her "My Way." The set's highlights were all newer songs; the Chicks are definitely done with Nashville, and want to focus on their new, California-bred sound.
After the Chicks departed without an encore, the band that set the rules for that sound took the stage to instant pandemonium. The Eagles are consummate arena rockers: They have a repertoire fans adore, an extroverted performance style that flaunts their prowess as a band and a great sense of how to put a set together. Thursday's show built steadily by mixing hits with relative obscurities; the hits got everyone singing, while the lesser-known songs, mostly by guitarist Joe Walsh, let the Eagles turn into a jam band.
The set began with four songs from the band's new album, "Long Road Out of Eden," to be released Oct. 30. With one sung by each member, these newbies offered assurance that the Eagles sound remains intact. Don Henley offered "Busy Being Fabulous," a typical slice of moral outrage; Glenn Frey took the lead on the current single, the '70s J.D. Souther song "How Long." Walsh and bassist Timothy B. Schmit did well on their turns too.
Then a trumpet call signaled a trip down a warm desert highway. "Hotel California" was made even grander by the contributions of eight sidemen, including a horn section. Guitarist Steuart Smith played the leads made famous by the now-absent Don Felder. From behind the drums, Henley spat out his famous lyrics, sounding as tough and spooky as he did in 1976.
Frey then took the microphone, playing the natty foil to Henley's penthouse prophet. The interplay between the relaxed Frey and the intense Henley is a major factor in the Eagles' appeal. Put it this way -- Frey wrote what might be the best song about free love, "Peaceful Easy Feeling," while Henley wrote the best song about freebasing, "Life in the Fast Lane." Both sounded great during this set.
Frey and Henley played ring toss with their hits, but they also gave a lot of room to Walsh, whose wacky persona (he made a reference to his "new teeth," making light of the inevitable decay of a once hard-partying baby boomer) charms Eagles fans, but whose songs aren't quite as indelible.
Live, however, it was Walsh who helped the Eagles to explore new terrain. His songs are blues- and funk-based, and allow his mates, especially the lithe-fingered Schmit, to stretch out and groove. The tight harmonies that emblematize the Eagles sound were beautiful in this room, but the full-on jams were more surprising. At one point, the Eagles almost -- almost -- sounded like George Clinton's band Parliament-Funkadelic. If the Nokia Theatre led these old birds to try that new trick, it's truly an inspiring room.