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Eagles and Chicks help hatch L.A.'s Nokia Theatre

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Chicks_lThe Eagles are effectively — or spiritually — L.A.’s house band, so it makes sense that they’re the first band anybody wants to book for local milestone events. (Who else you gonna call, the Doors? The Beach Boys? Every other quintessential Angeleno act has long gone fishin’.) They played the turn-of-the-millennium gig at the city’s Staples Center almost eight years ago, and here they were literally just yards away from Staples on Thursday night, playing the opening night of the Nokia Theatre, a 7,100-seater that’s looking to become Southern California’s primary concert hall. The Nokia, a $100-million undertaking in itself, is part of the billion-dollar L.A. Live complex that is being billed as the city’s answer to Times Square. (You may wonder how a privately owned outdoor mall can be the equivalent to Times Square, but as my New York friends remind me, Times Square is easily mistaken for a mall nowadays, so why sweat the difference?)

I had a secret hope that the Eagles would play Don Henley’s brilliant “The Last Resort,” from the Hotel California album, as a bittersweetly ironic commentary on this arguably much-needed but controversial downtown L.A. development. But instead, they played Joe Walsh’s “In the City,” while behind them, on truly gigantic video screens, played several minutes of footage of urban street scenes… shot in New York City. Now, maybe this was the band’s wry of saying, hey, you may try to rebuild Times Square in L.A., but you’ll never beat New York at its own game. Or, more probably, the irony of visually celebrating New York on a night that was supposed to be a triumphant moment for li’l old Los Angeles was completely inadvertent.

The Eagles may be headlining this six-night run of shows, but, as the opening act, the Dixie Chicks (pictured) got the first performance in at the new theater. (The Chicks most recently headlined the 20,000-seat Staples Center themselves, so this was clearly a no-expenses-spared night as far as talent acquisition went.) Great minds must think alike, because I had no sooner gotten to my seat and looked out over the vast expanse of the auditorium, thinking, “This is one hell of a wide-open space,” when the band came out and sang, as their opening song… you guessed it, “Wide Open Spaces.” There’s something about the Nokia’s layout and scope that creates the illusion that it holds about twice as many people as the 7K it does. Very few of the seats are in the smallish balcony and loge areas. And there’s no amphitheatre-style tiered seating; the orchestra section that’s responsible for at least 90% of the seats stretches out on one long, relatively smooth plane, as if you’re looking at a gigantic wheat field where every golden stalk just happens to be a placidly drunk 48-year-old reliving his youth. But in spite of that seeming hugeness, “no seat is further from the stage than 220 feet” (as the publicity keeps reminding us), and the sightlines are nothing to complain about, even in that seemingly far-off balcony, as I determined from a brief visit to the back row.

addCredit(“The Dixie Chicks: Randall Michelson/WireImage.com”)

In the sense that tech people are always looking for a device thatwill be “an iPod-killer,” the Nokia is clearly designed to be a GibsonAmphitheatre-killer — which is to say, the clear desire here was tocreate a hall that will steal business away from the 6,000-seat venueformerly known as the Universal Amphitheatre. Will it succeed in thatparticular venue-hicular homicide? Hard to say, but it is agiven that more and more awards shows will gravitate here (the AmericanMusic Awards are already booked, and the Emmys are rumored to be readyto defect). Two good reasons it’ll attract lots of kudocasts in yearsto come: The Nokia has bragging rights to the largest stage in L.A.,period, which will make for quick, TV-friendly changeovers, And thoseextra thousand seats it holds on the Gibson or the Shrine means thatawards shows hosted by guilds or other membership orgs can get an extrathousand of their needy members in, along with all the requisitecelebrities.

It’s probably been a while since the Dixie Chicks played an openinggig, or gave any performance where much of the audience was stillstumbling around trying to find their seats well into their set. Infact, they delayed the start time by over 20 minutes, which may haveexplained Natalie Maines’ initially subdued mood. Apparently there wassome anxiety in the dressing room. “I blame you for my hair,” Mainestold the audience a few songs in, referring to her unusually elevated,almost beehive-ish ‘do. “The later you were, the higher it got. I callit my sober Amy Winehouse.” (Well, now that she mentioned it…) “Onlyin L.A. would people spend $300 a ticket and be half an hour late,” sheadded. The first two-thirds of their hour-long set was comprised ofoldies (except for a newly minted cover of Patty Griffin’s “Mary”),before they wrapped things up with four songs from last year’sGrammy-hoarding Taking the Long Way. “It was fun,” Maines saidat the end, nearly seeming to shrug her shoulders, as if she wasn’tquite sure they’d completely regained their footing after the layoff.”We haven’t played since the Grammys… I just like reminding everybodyabout the Grammys.” You could sense some audience uncertainty duringtheir set, just pertaining to the vibe of the room: Is this the kind ofrock ‘n’ roll concert hall where we’re allowed to stand up, or aclassier joint where we’re supposed to sit on our well-manicured hands?What finally got folks on their feet wasn’ a rocker but a thoroughlyimpassioned reading of “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Maines’ “I refuse tohave makeup sex with my conservative detractors” anthem, which wentdown in history as the hall’s first standing-O.

There was a kind of symmetry to the way the Chicks ended their setwith four songs from their latest album and how the Eagles startedtheir two-hour set with four songs from Long Road Out of Eden,which comes out Oct. 30. I’ve had the chance to preview that newrelease (a 20-song, two-CD affair that will be sold only in Wal-Martand on the group’s website) a couple of times, but I haven’t loggedenough miles with it to let it sit and figure how it might settle inwith the rest of the band’s oeuvre. So I figured that, in concert, theband might make a convincing case for the best new songs fitting inamong their classics. But that wasn’t to be, as the group simplystopped playing any new material after that initial four-song teaserand instead went straight into a greatest-hits set for the remainder ofthe two hours. Of the four fresh songs they did play, three were amongthe new album’s most lightweight: the J.D. Souther cover “How Long”; aPaul Carrack cover that gives Timothy B. Schmit a chance to singsomething as close to “I Can’t Tell You Why” as humanly possible; anenjoyably throwaway Joe Walsh number. Only “Busy Being Fabulous,” acharacteristically caustic Don Henley kiss-off ballad, gave any hintthat there might be any ambition to the album at all (which thereactually is, as you might guess from that title).

In lieu of being a showcase for the new album, then, the band wascontent to party like it’s 1999 — that is, to play much the same showthat they did next door at Staples at the turn of the millennium. Thiswas another Eagles show that — for better and worse — bordered on being”The Joe Walsh Show, Featuring the Eagles,” with an inordinate amountof the crowd-pleasing spotlight positions given over to non-EaglesWalsh songs like “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Life’s Been Good,” and “Funk49.” This is in marked contrast to the new album, where Walsh sings andwrites just one number out of 20. The loquacious Henley spoke not aword all night, as if to indicate that he is just a contented cog inthis extremely well-oiled oldies machine, while Glenn Frey did theemcee duties and Walsh cracked the occasional joke. Fans hardly seemedto mind the classic-rock orientation of the show — the band doeshave one of the great pop song canons of the 20th century — but anyonewanting to know what the Eagles have to say in or about 2007 will haveto wait and hit Wal-Mart in a week and a half.

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