Life in the cash line

The concept of rock & roll as theme-park attraction took two steps forward with last Friday's public unveiling of the new Hard Rock Live at Universal Studios CityWalk, as Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey played a professional but perfunctory set that proved how lucrative the packaging of outlaw imagery has become to the business of family entertainment.

It wasn't totally incongruous to watch the part-time Eagles joining Elroy Jetson, the Wolfman and E.T. in the ranks of Universal's licensed characters. Their brand of laid-back, Southern California lite-rock wasn't even considered a threat to American values during their band's 1970s heyday. Still, Walsh has made his rep as something of a cheerfully wasted social satirist -- a Jimmy Buffet for the Camaro-driving set. Allegedly, he was required to sign a legally binding "no drugs" contract before being allowed back into the Eagles at all, which made his toastmaster status at the kick-off of a megabucks entertainment hall more than a little ironic. Can Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing Grill be close behind?

New kid in town

Decidedly low on glamour for such a multimedia event, a crowd of middle-aged hell-raisers and rubbernecking tourists beat its sneakered feet across the CityWalk pavement to get in on the action. The lights of the complex's few already-operational venues shone like lonely beacons around them, cursing the darkness that enveloped such gestating cousins as the under-construction Motown Cafe. This was the eerie, shadowy Pleasure Island of "Peter Pan," not the brightly inviting version that draws deep-pocketed partiers to Downtown Disney's West Side.

An oval-shaped edifice in the center of the avenue, Hard Rock Live resembled a Roman coliseum in its architecture, although the adjacent gift shop and relocated Hard Rock Cafe promised brand-name commerce in lieu of debauchery. Once inside, we all found a roomy auditorium that was ringed by a wide balcony and set off by twin bars placed at the back of the room and in the front foyer. The effect was impressive but hardly overwhelming, lacking the grandeur of Disney's Atlantic Dance or the bayou-music-hall charm of House of Blues. Unlike HOB, the Hard Rock offered reserved floor seating, but in removable, armless chairs that seemed straight out of a Radisson ballroom. I almost worried that I had walked into a Tony Robbins seminar by mistake -- until I noticed a 30-something guy in the upstairs seats excitedly waving his vinyl copy of "The Long Run" like Neville Chamberlain brandishing the Peace of Paris.

A good portion of the audience hadn't even made it through the mob scene at the bar when Walsh and Frey ambled out onstage shortly after the announced 8 p.m. start time. Never count on an opening act to give you drinking leeway when none has been publicized. From the first notes of Walsh's radio staple "Walk Away," it was apparent that this would be a low-risk, no-surprises evening. "I'm Glenn," Frey sing-songed after the tune had ended. "And this is Joe. And these are songs you all know."

From there, we were taken on a breezy ride through familiar territory, treated to just about every FM standard on which either man had ever taken a lead vocal. Solo hits, Eagles favorites and Walsh's James Gang output were all represented, although their authors seemed disappointingly bored with many of them.

"I remember the first time I heard this song," Frey reminisced as he introduced the weepy twang of "Lyin' Eyes." "Then I had to hear it over and over!" After only a chorus or two, the band segued into the equally omnipresent "Take It Easy."

On the border

Walsh is really showing his age these days: Seen under the lights, his bulbous nose and mop of now-white hair marked him as a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Andy Warhol. Frey was, as ever, slightly more dapper, although his SoCal good looks appeared to be entering the Nick Nolte stage of wind-blown, midlife studhood.

The Hard Rock's large stage (which should prove at least as versatile as the one at House of Blues) allowed the duo to augment its sound with a veritable army of side musicians, including two keyboardists, a drummer, an extra percussionist, a third guitarist and a four-man horn section. To my surprise, the two female backup singers bucked the ornamental tradition of their craft by appearing at least as long in the tooth as Walsh and Frey. It would have been easy to believe that the pair had sent their wives out on stage instead of their usual vocalists as a last-minute lark.

To its credit, the band didn't turn out a bum note all evening, but neither did it break free from the confines of "professional musician" conservatism to genuinely cook. A so-so guitar solo from Walsh was all that saved Frey's 1980s monster hit "You Belong to the City" from going over like a lead balloon (proving that the days of "Miami Vice" are a forgotten blip on the cultural radar to any given Eagle's audience of unrepentant baby boomers). Replacing the original Don Henley vocal of "Life in the Fast Lane" with a Walsh/Frey tradeoff was the biggest misstep -- the song's underlying, pithy tragedy was lost without Henley's hoarse plaintiveness to carry it.

The sound mix was less than stellar throughout, though the location of my seat (too close to the stage-left speakers) may have diluted the overall effect. Frey seemed to be having problems of his own, sticking his finger in his ear at one point to compensate for some monitor troubles. It looks as if it may take the Hard Rock Live team a while to master the new room's acoustics.

Already gone

The show's 90 minutes were over in a flash, and the lack of a warm-up act ensured that we were already filing out at the ungodly early hour of 9:45 p.m. It's disconcerting when a Friday-night rock concert ends before "20/20" has begun. Had we been willing to risk the speeding tickets, we all could have made it to Sapphire Supper Club before the first band had even finished its sound check. But how many of us would have been able to meet the Sapph's cover after paying the steep $50 ticket price the Hard Rock had charged for a very brief evening of entertainment?

No one did much milling about after Walsh and Frey had left the stage, leaving the bar area positively desolate compared to the war zone it had resembled earlier. As my friend and I mulled over our options for the still-young evening, we took a stroll through the neighboring cafe, where a framed portrait of Johnny Rotten stared down from the walls and a demons-under-glass exhibit of KISS costumes took prime position up front. I didn't see one of Marilyn Manson's trusses, but I'm sure it's coming next.

The sight of those "museum pieces" was the perfect capper to a concert experience that had all but cemented the status of rock as a trophy --stuffed, mounted and trotted out as an amusing but ultimately harmless reminder of the fearsome animal it had once been. Hopefully, future shows at Hard Rock Live will have more bite, but it's hard to push the envelope when you're just as interested in pushing commemorative satin jackets. Welcome to the Hotel California.

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