Photographs by Lee-Ann Richer.
Before the man even set one foot on the Sony Centre stage, the audience had hints of what the night in Toronto would hold: Americana. Suspended in a canopy above the stage were 35 vintage radios of varying size and shape, like little clouds in a Surrealist painting. The lights went out and a single radio lit up with former American president Franklin Roosevelt’s voice reaching out across the room, “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” And, so began the journey. In quick succession,the radios held the spotlight and sang out with snippets of songs and speeches that took the crowd on a trek from 1933 to the 1970s, a point when America’s story and Don Henley’s story meet.
Shawn Colvin, Grammy winning singer-songwriter opened for Don Henley. She is supporting her latest release, Uncovered, an album of cover-songs from some of her favorite artists. Her songs fit in perfectly with the feel of the new Henley album, and worked as as a great warm-up. She started her eight song set with Crowded House’s Private Universe, which she performed solo with her acoustic guitar. She was then joined by her small backing band, two of whom were doing double duty, playing in Henley’s band as well. All the covers took on a melancholy feel, which seep into her interpretations. She also played two of her own tunes, including her 1996 hit Sunny Came Home, which garnered the biggest reaction from the crowd.
A founding member of the Eagles, Don Henley’s place in musical history is secure; but his new album and tour are not about that. Cass County, Henley’s first solo effort in 15 years, is a heartfelt study of America’s country/bluegrass/folk songs.
The concert’s opener, Seven Bridges Road, was performed in Carter Family style, bare-bones with 9 people huddled around microphone stands; everyone on stage dressed as though they had just climbed out of the 1930s’ dust bowl to meet 2015. A series of songs from the new record followed and each tune came with a story. Henley took his time filling in details about the songs and showed his mastery at story-telling. With Praying for Rain, he talked about water and drought and the plight of farmers facing dying crops. That Old Flame came with a tale about an unnamed ex-girlfriend from the ‘80s who had tracked Henley down just to say hello and let him know that she didn’t want to see him dead anymore. And he talked of reworking a Tift Merritt song that he liked, Bramble Rose, into 3 parts for himself, a country princess and a rock legend. The fans, a litte older but as loyal as ever, hung on Henley’s every word.
For a touring band, Henley assembled an accomplished, tight crew that sounded polished, pure and steady. The ten piece band included long-time collaborators as well as three strong back-up singers, and was at times augmented by an outstanding horn section. Henley sounded good, especially in his higher register belting out choruses. His voice is older, more gravelly, which only lends a greater sense of authenticity to the lyrics.
About half the show featured songs from Cass County. Henley also played a few cover songs, including a stellar version of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World. He also hit the highlights from his own very successful back-catalogue. There were fewer stories accompanying the ‘80s’ hits, but it didn’t matter. The six songs from the seminal End of the Innocence were clearly crowd favourites – The Heart of the Matter, New York Minute, and How Bad Do You Want It? among them.
When the band returned to the stage for its two song encore, Henley announced that he’d been told he had “eleven minutes left to cram in the last two songs.” He managed to pack one last story in, too. After two and a half hours on stage, he ended with Train in the Distance, a tune that speaks of a Texas childhood spent in simpler times and All She Wants to Do Is Dance – which, happily, a few people did.
Thanks to Live Nation Ontario for media access.