The timing was perfect. The 1960s came to a close on Sunday night when AMC’s “Mad Men” signed off with the 1971 ad “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” — and, as if on cue, the Eagles rode into the Erwin Center on Tuesday evening, picking up almost exactly where Don Draper left off.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1971 just as that Coke ad was hitting the airwaves, the Eagles wound up capturing the zeitgeist of the ’70s in much the same manner that “Mad Men” sought to reflect the ’60s. The difference being that Don Henley, Glenn Frey and their bandmates lived it in real time.
But the current “History of the Eagles” tour — which began what co-leader Don Henley called “the final lap” of a two-year run with Tuesday’s Austin show — carries a similarly retrospective tone. In the 2013 documentary film that inspired the tour, Henley describes the band’s signature tune “Hotel California” as “a song about a journey from innocence to experience,” and indeed the band’s three-hour show is constructed to follow that same journey through the ’70s, just as “Mad Men” did for the ’60s.
The “innocence” began with just Henley and founding partner Glenn Frey out front for “Saturday Night,” clearly chosen as the opener for its leadoff line “It seems like a dream now, it was so long ago.” The tune, from the group’s 1973 sophomore album “Desperado,” set the tone for an early segment that refreshingly worked in several deeper album cuts alongside the hits “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Witchy Woman.”
Much of the song selection traces to the inclusion of original member Bernie Leadon, who returned to the Eagles in 2013 for the first time since his departure in 1975. He joined Henley and Frey at the front of the stage for the set’s second song, “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” which Leadon co-wrote with Gene Clark for a Dillard & Clark album that preceded the Eagles’ formation.
The early acoustic segment also included “Doolin-Dalton” and “Doolin-Dalton/Desperado (Reprise),” the bookends of the “Desperado” album. The gunfighter-themed concept record didn’t produce as many hits as the group’s auspicious self-titled debut, but history has treated it well, as evidenced by the band including five of its songs on this tour.
The latter part of the opening set honed in on songs that made the Eagles’ 1976 “Greatest Hits” collection the top-selling U.S. album of the 20th century, with “Already Gone,” “Best of My Love,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “One of These Nights” and “Take It to the Limit” delivered in rapid-fire, crowd-pleasing succession. Guitarist Joe Walsh and bassist Timothy B. Schmit joined Frey, Leadon and ace utility guitarist Steuart Smith out front as Henley took his traditional seat behind the drums along with a backing crew that included percussionist Scott Crago and three keyboardists: Will Hollis, Michael Thompson and Austin’s own Richard Davis.
The surprise of the second set was how much of the spotlight was handed over to Walsh, who stepped out front at the set’s start to sing the “Hotel California” album cut “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” (Leadon departed for the second set, returning only in the encore.) Walsh, who replaced Leadon in late 1975, was always supplementary to the core of Henley and Frey; known as much for his zany personality as for his music, he’s like the Kramer of the Eagles, to borrow a ’90s pop-culture reference for a ’70s band on a ’10s tour.
Frey had his moments early in the second set with “New Kid in Town” and “Heartache Tonight,” as did Henley on “Those Shoes” and Schmit on “I Can’t Tell You Why.” But they let Walsh do the heavy lifting, featuring not only his 1979 film-soundtrack hit “In the City” (remade for the Eagles’ swan song “The Long Run”) but also the 1970 staple “Funk #49” from his days in the James Gang. The centerpiece was Walsh’s piece de resistance, “Life’s Been Good,” a number that left Henley complaining “I have to follow THAT” as he took the mic for the title track of “The Long Run.”
A one-two punch of “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California” completed the journey to experience before one last visit to the innocent age. Leadon returned as the band launched into its first single, the Jackson Browne co-write “Take It Easy,” and after a final nod to Walsh for his 1973 solo hit “Rocky Mountain Way,” they closed with the title track to the concept album that figured prominently in the show’s first hour.
“Desperado, you ain’t gettin’ no younger,” Henley confessed, and many in the sold-out Erwin Center crowd sang along with first-hand understanding. As his bandmates joined in at the end, creating the splendid multi-layered vocal blend that has always been at the heart of the Eagles’ music, it felt as if they’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.