Three songs into Don Henley’s concert Friday at the Forum in Inglewood, on his solo tour supporting his first album away from the Eagles in 15 years, the Texas singer-songwriter wryly advised the near-sellout crowd: “This show is going to be all over the map. I don’t like to be a monochromatic musician.”
True to his word, he served up a set list that, although drawing heavily on his brand-new solo album “Cass County,” added up to what may be the first rock concert on record to veer as far afield as the Louvin Brothers’ country-as-country-gets ballad “When I Stop Dreaming,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ spooked-up R&B ode to romantic obsession “I Put A Spell on You” and Tears for Fears’ ‘80s Brit-pop standard “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
The one spot on the musical map he visited only tangentially was the one where his mainstay band resides. There were periodic shouts of “Eagles!” from members of the audience, and after the third or fourth hollered request for a particular hit from that band, Henley finally responded, evenly, but firmly: “No. I just spent 21 years doing that.”
There was a strong sense during his more than two-hour performance of liberation from being tied to the Eagles’ repertory, hallowed as it is for a large contingent of classic-rock and country-rock fans.
The closest he came was the opening number, a nine-voice near-a cappella rendering of Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” that’s long been a regular part of the Eagles’ live shows.
Aside from that, he dipped frequently into “Cass Country,” playing more than a dozen songs from the collection that just entered the Billboard’s national album sales chart and the country album chart at No. 1.
“At this stage of the game, ladies and gentlemen, you don’t know what a miracle that is,” he said with a smile. “But I’ll take it.”
It’s a strong collection of songs that tap a Technicolor range of subjects and emotions, most of them written by Henley and his longtime collaborator, Stan Lynch, ex-drummer from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.
“Praying for Rain” is an elegant allegory about drought, literal and metaphorical, one he dedicated “to everyone in the Southwest. But not the East,” acknowledging the recent floods in other parts of the country lately. Demonstrating his knack for taking the long look at most any topic, he slyly noted, “We don’t have a water problem. We have a distribution problem.”
“Words Can Break Your Heart,” a beautifully sculpted breakup ballad, hones in on the way words can be more hurtful than the proverbial sticks and stones, and Henley’s signature smoky tenor put it across with the complexity of reactions that idea elicits.
Like the album, the live performance skewed strongly country, but country that delves squarely into matters of the heart, not merely concerned with moving feet or pelvises like so much of today’s tailgate-party focused bro-country.
Henley received flexible, colorful backing from a nine-member band that included three female singers and which was augmented on three songs by a seven-piece horn section. In particular, solos from guitarist Steuart Smith and steel guitarist Milo Deering brought considerable dimension to the arrangements.
The singers — Erica Swindell, Lara Johnston and Lily Elise — took turns handling several of the duets allotted to Henley’s female partners on the album: Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Allison Krauss and Stevie Nicks.
Except for anyone focused solely on celebrity sightings, there was no letdown in the musicality of those duets, save briefly for Swindell’s overly melismatic delivery of the exquisitely straight-to-the-gut verse Parton sings in “When I Stop Dreaming,” which needs no vocal filigree to get across the aching beauty of Ira Louvin’s lyrics:
You may teach the flowers to bloom in the snow
You may take a pebble and teach it to grow
You may teach all the raindrops to return to the clouds
But you can’t teach my heart to forget
Having been in the public spotlight for more than four decades, Henley is by now a known quantity, a musician who prizes musical invention and lyrical exploration over performance pyrotechnics. He largely stayed rooted at his spot center stage, shifting only between acoustic and electric guitars, or solo vocals while the band served up the music.
Yet he managed a couple of surprises, including a mini-set loosely themed to what he described as the imminent arrival of “one of my favorite holidays: Halloween.” That’s when he dusted off “I Put a Spell On You,” one of the songs that benefited from the added muscle of the large horn section, and “a song by my friend Randy Newman,” the haunting and mysterious “Burn Down the Cornfield.”
The Tears for Fears choice also came out of left field, but fit in musically with the ‘80s and early-'90s vibe of his earlier solo hits between long tour stretches with the Eagles: “The End of the Innocence,” which opened with a stretched-out free-form intro, “Heart of the Matter,” “New York Minute,” the insistently propulsive “Boys of Summer” and the show-closing concession to booty-shaking, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.”
As “all over the map” tours go, Henley presided over a revelatory and rewarding journey.