Take it easy? Not these guys

By Sean Piccoli
Pop Music Writer
May 16, 2003

If any band could do without new songs, it is the Eagles.

They of the quilted vocal harmonies and easy-rocking sound already boast the No. 1 album in U.S. history: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 has sold 27 million copies in its 27 years of embedding Already Gone and Desperado, among others, into the American brain. Band members earn a bundle on arena tours playing back these and other highlights of a creative partnership that effectively ended with the 1979 release of The Long Run -- the last Eagles' album consisting entirely of new material.

Nothing that has happened since -- and, really, nothing has happened since -- calls for expansion of the repertoire as the band arrives here to perform tonight and Saturday at Sunrise's Office Depot Center.

And that can only mean one thing: The Eagles are finally going to put out another studio album.

"I cannot tell when it's going to be released," bass player and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit says in a telephone interview, "but hopefully sometime next year."

If the when is fuzzy, the why bother may be unknowable. The Eagles would appear to be long past having to make choices based on need. They are doing this because they can.

Work on the album started more than 18 months ago, and Schmit reports "really good progress." The band played one tune to emerge from those sessions, an r&b-flavored post-9/11 elegy called Hole in the World, last Saturday in Richmond, Va., on the first night of the cheekily named "Farewell 1" tour. Radio stations get the studio version of the song today and a band publicist says that selected retailers will have it on June 6.

It will have to compete with a lot of history and habit. Eagles compilations -- hits, hits-in-concert and anthologies -- now outnumber albums of first-run material seven to six. The four fresh studio tracks that opened 1994's Hell Freezes Over became instant Eagles trivia, a mostly forgotten warm-up act to that reunion album's main attraction: live acoustic versions of their greatest hits.

The latest collection, Selected Works 1972-1999, added a few more previously unheard numbers to the whole. But those and the quartet from Hell Freezes Over remain bonus tracks, at best, surprises to occasionally be sprung on tour along with favorites from the band members' solo careers. It has been enough for most fans that the Eagles simply show up on time at the appointed venue, hits in tow.

How can Schmit stand it anymore?

"I think it's hard to explain," he says. Schmit, 55, concedes that tour rehearsals are not the place one finds new and illuminating qualities in oft-played songs: Take It to the Limit, One of These Nights, Tequila Sunrise or Hotel California -- the Stairway to Heaven of Southern California rock. And the band spent two weeks rehearsing these chestnuts in front of a new stage setup, Schmit says.

But he adds, "It's always different when you're in front of a crowd; it's so different from rehearsing ... Surprisingly, they do become fresh. Again, it's hard to explain, but I think it has to do with reaction from the crowd. There are some people who know these songs inside out."

There is no disputing the demand for the repetitive comfort provided by Schmit, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh. The Eagles were nothing if not pioneers in the concert industry's march toward the $100-and-up ticket in the '90s as they price-tested their staying power. They have since been lapped by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones in the race to meet -- and keep -- the markup that scalpers and ticket brokers have shown is always possible. But the Eagles are hardly suffering. They grossed more than a $1 million a night on average in 32 concerts last year. Floor seats for this weekend's shows top out at a still-princely $176.50.

The band, in turn, makes what Schmit says is a considerable investment in entertaining the audience.

"We have a new video setup," he says. "We have new lights and it's not just rehearsing the music; it's rehearsing sort of all of that stuff to get it all coordinated ... We don't skimp on what we give the people. Including a short break, we play for about three hours, and we want it to be good. We work on every little nuance because we want to give everybody the best we've got."

Preparedness and professionalism are hallmarks of the Eagles career. From their formation in 1971 in Los Angeles onward, they were a studied group -- especially in the writing and recording of their music. The band's self-titled 1972 album built on the country-rock sound advanced earlier by the Byrds, Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, and the Dead spin-off New Riders of the Purple Sage. Songs such as Take It Easy, co-written by Frey and solo musician Jackson Browne, showed a passion for song craft -- concise, balanced composition of the kind that wanted to be liked and remembered on the first listen -- coupled with an in-the-pocket sound that rarely strayed to any acoustic extremes, high or low.

Sacramento, Calif., native Schmit was not in the band that made that album or the next four, during which time the Eagles shuffled personnel and moved away from overt country at Henley's tugging toward a more urbane, streamlined rock and pop virtuosity. That push culminated in the 1976 album Hotel California, a milestone of two-sides album rock for its grand, exacting orchestration of rock melody, arranging, pacing and performance.

Schmit stepped in during the troubled spell separating Hotel California from whatever the Eagles hoped to do for an encore. The band was by then reeling from the usual peak-of-stardom shocks to the system -- some of these contemplated in Hotel California's baroque title track and the album's hardest-rocking, most cynically worded hit, Life in the Fast Lane.

Schmit's first band, country-rockers Poco, had played shows with the Eagles and with Walsh's early band, James Gang. Walsh replaced a founding member of the Eagles, Bernie Leadon, on guitar and vocals. Schmit became an obvious choice to replace another original Eagle, outgoing bassist and singer Randy Meisner, who Schmit had previously replaced in Poco.

He was invited to become an Eagle "without ever playing one note for them," he says. The Eagles had officially become a machine running on brand-name replacement parts.

The Long Run is arguably the weakest of the Eagles six studio albums, an unintended display of the internal rot that stalks any massively popular rock group. But it had its moments, and Schmit was lead writer and vocalist on one of the standouts, the ballad I Can't Tell You Why, a Top 10 single in 1980.

Schmit just can't tell you how, exactly, that one came together in the fog of the late '70s: "I'm quite frankly very fuzzy back then about how it happened. But I do remember playing a piece of this song for them, and Don and Glenn eventually evolved it."

The band split shortly after The Long Run. Frey and, in particular, Henley went on to well-received solo careers. The 1994 reunion brought back five key members, including guitarist and vocalist Don Felder. He is not in the 2003 lineup, however, and is suing Henley and Frey for what he calls wrongful firing. The suit comes before a judge as early as September.

Schmit has stayed on peaceful terms with his old mates. He also has pursued his own music through four solo albums since 1984, including Feed the Fire in 2001.

"I'm not really known as a solo artist," he says. But he has gone the way of many solo musicians in the 21st century, marketing his wares on a Web site where he also keeps a journal. He continues to write and record solo music, but does not necessarily save his best stuff for himself.

"If I think that there's something that comes up that I think they should hear, they will definitely hear it first," he says. He hangs on to it "if it doesn't become an Eagles thing -- or, to put it simply, if there's disinterest."

We will know next year, perhaps, whether that culling yields to what the band seems to want -- a chance to break away from the old hit parade or lengthen it by getting new songs into the culture's bloodstream. It is not clear that Hole in the World, with its stock-in-trade harmony, will lead the way. But it's only one song. If veterans such as Santana, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen can have latter-day revivals and win acclaim for renewed creativity, long after people had stopped expecting it of them, why not the Eagles?