By Kathy King Johnson
The Epic Eagles Tribute band rocked a nearly full house last Friday at the Opera House. 450 happy fans enjoyed a night of Eagles’ and Glenn Fry classics in the cool of the newly repaired air conditioning. I have seen the real, actual Eagles live twice. They are my favorite band, which makes me a tough customer.
The first time was front row center on Nov. 12, 1976, at the Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor. I was seventeen. My brother Louis scored the tickets somehow. Christy Hall, Marty Valenski, Dana Tallman and I drove down from Cheboygan for the concert.
Midway through the classics, “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” the Eagles announced they would play a new song from their upcoming album. No one in the audience had heard the song before. The album was released on Dec 8, 1976. 14,000 people fell silent when Don Felder struck the haunting first notes of the greatest guitar solo of all time, “Hotel California.”
That was the memory that rushed back to me as I sat in the Opera House Friday night. Mike Alonzo picked up a Spanish guitar and the first notes rose from the stage like candelillas in the night, flickering, mysterious, familiar yet strange. Alonzo’s was an original, a new opening solo to “Hotel California.” It resonated, evoking old memories and making new.
Photo credit: Sam Johnson
When the Epic Eagles moved off the backline, picked up their guitars and lined up on the front of the stage, I was transported back to the time I saw the original Eagles for the second time in 1994. It was after a 14 year break up in a reunion tour so unexpected it was called “Hell Freezes Over.” The heat and humidity rose from the field at Houston’s Rice Stadium as the sun went down, maybe 70,000 people in the bleachers. The cool of the night washed over us. The band sat down in a row of chairs with seven guitars. It was Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Don Felder, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmit. I am pretty sure the seventh guitarist was J.D. Souther who sat in as a guest singer on a song he co-wrote: “The Heart of the Matter” or “Forgiveness.” The harmonies were so tight, the voices of many became one, and something greater was created, something that elevates the soul and speaks to a higher power.
The Epic Eagles took us to the same place. Travis Neuman did a magnificent job on the sound board, and the harmonies hung like liquid crystals under the proscenium arches, alive in the lights. The roar at the end of each song was so loud the band measured it with a sound meter in a friendly challenge to the other towns on the route to beat the reception Cheboygan gave the Epic Eagles. I dare them.
Between each song, the Cheboygan audience sat spellbound and silent, a silence so heavy that lead singer Dean Young commented, “It’s strange. You’re so loud, then you’re so quiet. It’s controlled chaos.” We are polite concert goers, drilled in respectful Opera House deportment but very appreciative of the talent.
This was a tribute band at its finest. A few years ago, Terry Lee Goffee came to the Opera House, star of the Johnny Cash tribute. An excited patron came up to the me afterward and said, “He’s better than the REAL Johnny Cash.” This sent me into an existential conversation with myself. When someone is playing the role of another person, how can they be better at being the person they are recreating than the person himself? After hearing the Epic Eagles, I think he may be right. The tribute band can be better than the original. It’s the magic of the Opera House.
Kathy King Johnson is a Hopwood Award winning essayist from the University of Michigan and former director of the Cheboygan Area Arts Council. She is author of “The Cheboygan Opera House: The Early Years,” available for sale here.