Don Henley & Jewel – TSB Arena March 25, 2017

With a three night stint in Aoteroa, Don Henley rounded off his four-decade time machine in the Capital with much ado and little fanfare.

Jewel Kilcher kicked off the evening with a simple solo set, beginning with a stark a capella rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I haven’t see her perform since she played in Wellington over 20 years. When she did that gig her first album was out and she was enjoying the novelty of her first world tour. “This place is a barn” she remarked, noting the lousy sound and high reverberation.  Back then the TSB really was a barn.  Roll on a few years. Times have changed.  Thanks to the shows like WOW (World of Wearable Arts) the place has come up to speed.  And sound systems are definitely much better these days.  All the better to hear Jewel.

I’m still amazed at the purity of her voice.  It’s still unique and so very clear.  I don’t think it’s changed at all over the years. She still possesses the ability to jump octaves in a single song.  The best example is during her big hits Who Will Save Your Soul and You Were meant For Me.  The latter she does with such aching passion that there’s not a dry eye in the place.  She also rattles off a couple of others like Intuition, Hands, Standing Still and Foolish Games.  Most of her material comes from the early albums.  They all sound great in this stripped back format, as they were originally written.

Her slightly nervous, slightly flaky stage presence has toned down a bit over the years, too.  I can remember her jittery audience rapport from the last time I saw her.  At one point, tonight she changes songs after a few lines because she’s lost concentration.  Another time she scolds the audience for talking in her set.  “I can hear everything up here,” she quips dryly, like a schoolteacher.

In the middle of her 40 minute set we are reminded of how she has an abusive father; how she grew up on a farm in Alaska (which features in a Discovery Channel TV show The Last Frontier); how she was homeless in LA and how music saved her. You can read up on these and many more fun-facts in in her second memoir available in the foyer (Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story).  Oh, and by the way she’s also launching a new website imparting her wisdom gleaned from those harsh years.  Now 42 and a mother with a five-year-old she’s still strikingly pretty with an amazing voice and determined to do it her way.

“Your all in a good spot”, announces our headliner, “Don’t ever move.  I’ve love my country, but it’s has gone to bat shit at the moment.”  It’s not an original line.  He said the same thing to his Auckland audience.  And probably Christchurch, too.  It’s an easy and cheap shot to gain a bit of respect, early on.  Not that he needs it.  The ‘Don’ is a legend down here.  As plenty of vintage Eagles T-shirts on aging beer guts attest.

Under a cloud of vintage radios the Don Henley show rolls in to deliver a two hour time capsule of songs from his solo career and his time with The Eagles, starting off with one of my favourites, Seven Bridges Road, done acapella by the whole ensemble up front and centre.  He’s brought along a big crew. I count 13, including 3 backup singers, a five-piece brass section, bass, drums, a slide (and sometimes violinist) two pianos and two lead guitarists – manned superbly by long-time collaborator Steuart Smith and Chris Holt.

Both tag-team their way through most of the solo from this set that spans nearly four decades from early Eagles to Henley’s most recent collection of originals and covers Cass County.  They pretty much stick to the well published set list but there are many highlights. For me these are the tunes that bookend the big singles, although Life In The Fast Lane, with added brass and more sharing of the lead guitar solos deserves special mention.  One of the deeper dives into the catalogue was dedicated to a woman Henley met in Aspen – “before all the Gucci giggery”, says Henley referring to the advent of the ski culture affluence that is now there.  He gives us a bit of the backstory to how he met a particular Czech exile in a bar and ended up staying with her in her cabin in the woods.  The Last Resort is a wonderful old song that closes Hotel California.  It’s totally 1970’s but it still works well today done up in a most Broadway fashion.  It has a similar immigrant sentiment to Neil Diamond’s Coming to America.  Somehow it also seems like yet another dig at the hypocrisy of Trump’s America.  Although Henley plays country, he’s no GOP redneck.

Another great moment is New York Minute, from Henley’s End of Innocence album.  The band do it with a wonderfully lush treatment.  This one definitely feels like a show tune.

The show has a number of covers, the best being Garth Brooks’ It Don’t Matter to The Sun.  They do this with some tenderness and retain its down home feel, despite the large number of players involved.  That also works well on a very hokey version of Bramble Rose (a Tift Merrit Cover) and a song about internet stalking That Old Flame which features a duet with one of the backing singers, Lara Johnston.

He also duets with another singer, Erica Swindell on an old Louvin Brothers number, When I Stop Dreaming.  Along with Lily Elise, the three ladies get their own turn to sing as a trio, doing Henley’s own I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore, while the man himself “steps out for a smoke and a pancake”.   They do a fair job on it but I think it’s best to leave this one to the man.

Of course, everyone was waiting for Mr Smith to strap on his white double neck and start up the first chords of Hotel California. The band’s version was blistering, proving that even though they’ve played it a 1000 times, there’s still some life to be lived.  A surprise that finally got everyone up dancing, despite the wilting protests of the party pooper usher team, was Tears For Fear’s Everybody Wants To Rule The World.  “This is therapy,” Henley joked, eluding to America’s political environment again.  Yes it was.

Given Henley is fast approaching 70, and that this the last night of the tour Downunder, he’s in fine voice and looking pretty good.  He doesn’t try to over exert though, leaving out any theatrics like leaping around the stage and the show is delivered right on script.  It started on time and finished with in a cat’s whisker, with two (planned) solos and no improvised components.  Nobody was adding any extras, despite it being finals night.  This was never going to be a challenging show.  It was just a great night out, with good music from a man who knows how to write a good song.

While most of Wellington was either at Adele or wishing they were, there were about 4000 fans down on the waterfront who were very happy re-living their teenage years with great tunes like Boys of Summer and Dirty Laundry still ringing in their ears as they headed out the exit doors.  There were at least a handful of punters that I overheard on the way out who were going to go hunting for their cassettes in the garage when they got home.  And chances are they were as happy as I was that they’d stayed home and gone out this weekend, too.

Tim Gruar