Eagles, Co-op Live, review: perfection never looked so easy

A voice of honey and heartache: Don Henley
A voice of honey and heartache: Don Henley - Redferns

The Eagles landed in Manchester for the start of the Long Goodbye, a week of shows at the Co-op Live arena that are being billed as the final ever UK performances for this all-time-great American band. “It is good to be here, but at this point it’s good to be anywhere,” cracked septuagenarian drummer Don Henley, leading his ensemble out for one last triumphant round.

“How are you liking your new arena?” Henley asked the 20,000 fans seated in this vast, modern building, which seems to have overcome teething problems that saw many concerts postponed this month. “It takes time to get things right,” Henley noted generously, the implication being that his band have also taken time to achieve a state of machine-tooled perfection.

But the fact is the Eagles had reached an extraordinary peak of songcraft, harmony and musicianship by the time of their 32-million selling Hotel California back in 1976, and decades of touring have added gloss to something already unassailable. This was an evening of bulletproof songs replete with meaningful lyrics, gorgeous melodies and sleek rhythms delivered by master musicians with not a note out of place. The fact that they make perfection look so easy is perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it.

As the concert began, footage of the Eagles across the decades flashed on giant screens. Of the original quartet, formed in 1971, only Henley remains, with other founding members dead or estranged. Nine musicians spread across the stage, of whom only two could authentically claim to be Eagles: witchy haired bassist Timothy B. Schmit (recruited in 1977) and gnarly guitarist Joe Walsh (who joined in 1975). A lot of musical weight is carried by the smooth-voiced Vince Gill (billed as a full member since founder Glenn Frey’s death in 2016) and session guitarist Steuart Smith, whose intricate playing creates a dazzling lattice for Walsh to burnish with rock star swagger.

The 76-year-old Walsh increasingly looks like a troll who has just emerged from under a bridge clutching a magic guitar, but his gurning expressions and flaring solos fire up these songs with some special spirit of life and energy. “If I knew I hadda play this the rest of my life, I’d’a written another song,” he deadpanned, introducing his signature 1978 anthem Life Is Good. “But it’s too late, we’re stuck with this one.”

The 76-year-old Henley leads from the back with rock-solid drumming and that still gorgeous honey and heartache voice, emerging from the wall of immaculate harmonies to take the lead  on such classics as Desperado, Witchy Woman, One of These Nights, Boys of Summer and, of course, Hotel California. “We love you, Don!” a voice cried out in the vast arena. “Honey, you don’t even know me,” replied Henley, laconically.

There has always been a sense of reservation about this great singer-songwriter. “We are in the midst of our 52nd year playing these songs,” announced Henley with a kind of managerial pride. “We’re doing that with no fireworks, no confetti cannons, no butt-wagging choreography. Just a bunch of guys with guitars.”

There are moments, though, when you think a little butt-wagging wouldn’t go amiss. But such is not the Henley way. The Eagles deliver nightly perfection without breaking a sweat, essaying a work ethic that gives the audience exactly what they want yet somehow lacks that little extra spark of spontaneous combustion. It is unimpeachable, nevertheless, performed with such professional pride that I have my doubts about whether this really is the end of a very long road. On this evidence, the Eagles haven’t checked out yet.