Don Henley played Philadelphia’s Academy of Music November 12 in support of his new album Cass County. If you already read my review of the album, you know that I was hoping for Henley to bring a set list stacked heavily with songs from the new release. I’m thrilled to say he did exactly that, which is a very bold move for an artist whose mainstream fans expect to see a greatest hits show.
He still threw in seven of his most popular hits (“The End of The Innocence,” “New York Minute,” “Dirty Laundry,” “The Last Worthless Evening,” “The Heart of the Matter,” “The Boys of Summer,” and “All She Wants to Do is Dance”) and even covered a few songs that he didn’t write, such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” which was a surprising highlight of the evening. It was on this song that I realized just how powerful Henley’s voice still is when he has complete command over it. His band truly shined on this track too, taking us from hauntingly low sounds to a powerful finish. Another unexpected cover was his take on the Tears For Fears classic and radio staple “Everybody Wants to Rule The World,” a song that I’m almost certain Henley felt driven to include due to today’s political climate. You might think that the song would feel out of place in a Don Henley show, but it felt natural, energetic, spirited, and almost as if Henley had written it.
The show opened with a fun selection of song snippets and news soundbites that covered just about every year of radio history. As each recording played, a spotlight illuminated a different radio that was hanging from the rafters decoratively, shining a light on all of the different eras moving from one radio to another, just like you were tuning stations on the dial of a pre-digital-era radio. This was a creative, captivating opening that set the stage for a show that would adeptly travel all over the map of musical styles.
As soon as Henley and his band hit the stage with a mostly a cappella “Seven Bridges Road,” (plus some acoustic guitar work) they demonstrated how powerfully their vocal harmonies were together and foreshadowed the great night of beautiful harmony that would follow for the rest of the evening. The Academy of Music’s gorgeous acoustics played a part in my enjoyment of the evening too. The sound was loud enough, but never distorted or overpowering. To my surprise, the overwhelming majority of the audience was quiet and respectful during Henley’s new songs and his storytelling in between. Some guy did eventually shout the Philadelphia Eagles cheer “E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES!” at one point, but it was actually funny because of the double meaning of eagles (the team and Henley’s other musical group). It was one of those rare nights where the show felt like a fantasy for me, as if one of my musical heroes had brought his band to my living room and said, “Hey, we’re going to play 22 songs for you and tell you a story about each one.” Truly awesome!
The female singers in the band, who Henley assured the crowd were “not just up here for decoration,” proved him right with bold, beautiful harmonies all night long, and joined Henley in duets on more than one song, such as “When I Stop Dreaming” and “That Old Flame.”
Usually I like to shoot a few photos with my iPhone as a souvenir from the concerts I attend, but the Academy’s staff was instantly on top of anyone who even held up a cell phone. The staff militantly policed the crowd all night, but the end result was that nobody was blocking my view or bothering the shit out of me the way that most people tend to when they try to take photos or videos at shows. Henley’s insistence on everyone keeping their damn phones in their pockets made the show more enjoyable. I’d like to see more artists start enforcing this policy. I’m sure that’s not a popular opinion, but it without a doubt kept distractions to a minimum, allowing fans to listen and watch with their full attention, which is a right that is all too often stolen from us by other fans behaving like asses. Bravo, Mr. Henley for putting together an amazing, superb night of music and giving your fans the ability to truly enjoy it.