Beyond the many individual inspired renditions of Eagles songs delivered Saturday at the Americana Music Assn.’s tribute to Glenn Frey, perhaps the biggest service the assemblage served up was the opportunity to hear those songs with fresh ears.
Divorced this evening from the original recordings that have been played endlessly over the last 40 years, the quality of the songwriting at the heart of the band’s phenomenal success emerged in sharper relief in the hands and voices of Bonnie Raitt, Eagles/Frey collaborator Jack Tempchin, Lee Ann Womack, the Civil Wars’ John Paul White, Brandi Carlile, Jack Ingram and the rest of more than two dozen participants.
For more than two hours at the Troubadour, during the Americana group’s annual pre-Grammy Awards concert, at least two generations of musicians paid homage to Frey and the band that he and Don Henley formed out of the fertile country-folk-rock scene centered at the venerable West Hollywood club in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Once the Eagles’ music became omnipresent on pop radio in the ‘70s, and because it continues to be revisited steadily on classic-rock outlets, it became fashionable in some quarters to pillory the band and its deep trove of exquisitely crafted songs.
Most of those were written by Frey and Henley, but the show also highlighted notable contributions from bandmates Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh as well as collaborators including Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Jack Tempchin.
Particularly among punk, post-punk, grunge, indie rock, roots rock and even some country musicians, the Eagles’ meticulous songcraft, arrangements and recordings have been targets of criticism for a perceived lack of edge, raw passion or emotional abandon.
But it’s a bit like griping that the Notre Dame Cathedral is somehow unsatisfying because it lacks the primitive beauty of a log cabin.
“I’m sick of people [dumping] on the Eagles,” singer-songwriter White, formerly of the Civil Wars alt-country duo, said after the show. “I tell people, ‘We all owe a debt to them. Every one of us is trying to write songs today because of what they did.”
White chose a relatively deep track for the first of his two spotlight numbers, “Most of Us Are Sad,” a rare song credited to Frey alone, a country-rooted waltz he wrote before the Eagles existed, and which they recorded on their 1972 debut album, “Eagles,” with bassist-singer Randy Meisner handling the vocal.
In wake of the political and social turmoil of the ‘60s, Frey wrote:
Tell me, scarlet sun
What will time allow?
We have brought our children here
Who can save them now?
White’s quavering vocal brought out the sincerity of those questions, and the heartbreak evident in posing them.
Another aspect of the Eagles’ catalog that Saturday’s tribute underscored was the powerful way themes of romantic yearning and loss couple with the signature beauty of their vocal harmonies.
Womack sang “Best of My Love,” which is easy to hear superficially as a gentle soft rock song of lost love. But Henley, Frey and Souther invested a mountain of emotion into the exploration of what happens when love fades:
Every night I’m lyin’ in bed
Holdin’ you close in my dreams
Thinkin’ about all the things that we said
Comin’ apart at the seams
Lyrically, many of their songs explore the dissonance between one’s intentions and one’s actions, while the signature other-world beauty of their vocal harmonies tacitly expresses a realm of perfection that often eludes the grasp of mere mortals.
There’s nothing soft and squishy about that combination.
New Jersey-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin sang another existential query that every adult faces sooner or later in her aching version of “After the Thrill Is Gone”: “What do you do when your dreams come true?/And it’s not quite like you planned?”
Among the evening’s other highlights: Raitt and Bay Area singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm trading verses on “Heartache Tonight,” Nashville-based trio Escondido offering a gorgeous reading of “Hollywood Waltz,” Carlile’s assertive reading of Tempchin’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” L.A. country newcomer Sam Outlaw’s tender version of “Tequila Sunrise,” and Tempchin’s own spirited performances of “The One You Love” from Frey’s solo career after the Eagles disbanded in the’80s, and his country song turned blazing rocker by the group, “Already Gone.”
Special mention should be made of the house band, long-running L.A. group Venice, which supplied most of the intricate vocal harmonies that define the Eagles sound. It helped the various guest soloists step into one of the most distinctive bodies of work of the rock era.
Venice got its own moment center stage early in the show with its reading of “Desperado,” which soared thanks to the spot-on four-part harmonies by the band’s two pair of sibling singers.
Eight singers pitched in on “Lyin’ Eyes,” one of many Eagles hits originally sung by Frey. The epic country-rock ballad delving into the topic of cheating -- not just on a lover, but on oneself -- generously contains enough verses for each of the eight guests to take one.
The closer, of course, was the hit that launched it all, the Browne-Frey collaboration “Take It Easy,” the same song that Browne, Henley, Walsh, Leadon and Schmit are scheduled to sing Monday during the Grammy Awards show.
And no, nobody sang “Hotel California.”