Q&A: Joe Walsh
Guitar legend Joe Walsh found himself flying solo full-time again after fellow Eagle Glenn Frey’s passing a year ago, playing before enthralled crowds on a co-bill with Bad Company this summer before headlining his own tour. As he tells Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, it was a good warm-up for his six-day residency at Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues, which follows being recognized in December with a Founders Award from Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture and by the Kennedy Center Honors as a member of the Eagles.
It’s a pleasure speaking with you. I’m a slide guitar disciple and can honestly say you’re playing influenced me to want to learn as a kid.
Wow! We’ll thank you! How’re you doing with it?
I gave it up for a long time and came back a few years ago, and started playing in open tunings. Now it’s my discipline.
When I got back into it I watched your slide lesson for Gibson, so it’s a real trip to come full circle and speak with you.
Great. Do you have the first Allman Brothers album?
No, I got into Live at the Fillmore East.
Yeah, yeah! That’s good. Just play along with Duane, every song.
I’m going to be playing along to “Rocky Mountain Way” later today.
Oh, OK! (laughs)
You made it look fun and deceptively easy. It’s not really something you can replicate digitally. As an “Analog Man” (the title cut of Walsh’s 2012 album) do you see slide playing as an important tradition to maintain in today’s music world?
Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. For all of us old school guys, I think it’s important to keep doing what we’re doing. The old guard, we know about analog recording and all of that, and there’s a wealth of knowledge that new people, they’re not going to know unless somebody’s around to teach them. And that’s important. You know, vinyl is starting to sell more than CDs now. There was a week where it sold more, and I think that’s kind of a rebellion by people. They’re really interested in the old way.
Are you seeing a resurgence of interest in slide playing among young guitarists?
Yeah, a lot of people are really interested in it and how to get started. I see a new generation of people in front of me. Unfortunately it all guys, but it’s young guitar players and they’re watching me close.
You can play guitar, you can shred, you can play the blues, but there’s something about slide. It’s a real commitment.
Yeah, it is, it is. And it is a discipline. You had a great word.
It’s a great discipline for a guy that doesn’t know how to work on cars.
(Laughs) Kind of the same thing, isn’t it?
You campaigned for president in 1980, which was a lot of fun for your fans. It would have been a good year to run again, but you’ve been super busy as a solo artist. Was that something you expected going into 2016?
No, it wasn’t something I expected, and I won’t get in too deep, but I will say all of us are, whether we want to or not, we have to figure out life after Glenn Frey, which is ongoing and pretty complex. The one thing I thought was, well, it’s important to me right away to get back out there and let everybody know about the solo side of me, and get some presence and Internet awareness, and get some word of mouth going. So I thought that was really important, and of course Henley’s working his album (2015’s Cass County) too. He worked a lot. We don’t know what else to do other than get out there and play because sitting at home being sad, that’s not going to accomplish anything. We both tried that. And so that’s what I’ve been doing. Went out with Bad Company last year. That was a pretty good matchup. Playing live, the repetition of doing that, is the difference between a group and a true band. I’ve got a really good set of musicians now. It’s kind of like a family, and that’s what I’m bringing to Las Vegas.
The band you’ve been touring with will be at the House of Blues shows?
So Waddy Wachtel, who is a session guitarist a lot of people are familiar with, will be there.
Yeah, and Joe Vitale.
He’s the drummer on the recordings for “Turn to Stone” and “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Yeah, and “Life’s Been Good,” too.
I don’t know if a lot of people are aware that you’re working with a drummer you really enjoyed playing with since you left The James Gang, and was part of the Eagles’ expanded lineup for the reunion tours. That’s a lot of history.
I wanted to get guys that know me backwards and forwards, and everybody was happy to do it … but we play different. We play different, you know? When they play on the record they know me backwards and forwards, and they know where I’m going, and that’s what I wanted to do. What I’ve tried to do is open up … I think I have an obligation to play what people come to hear and I recognize that, but I’ve been able to open up the middle sections of a lot of these songs with a kind of “Let’s see what happens,” and I’ve given those guys permission. “Let’s play something we haven’t played instead of playing the same thing every night. Let’s go out there and see what happens.” There’s a lot of jamming and improvising, and playing off of each other. And we’re having a great time doing it. The audience can really feel that energy. There’s not a lot of people doing it. I wouldn’t say it’s a Grateful Dead band where you just play forever, but I’m opening up some of the songs so that … “Let’s see what happens.”
I think people will expect you to take some expressive journeys as a guitarist.
Yeah, well, I’m trying to figure that out. I do want to play what people came to hear so that nobody goes home disappointed, but a lot of these young guitar players are coming to hear me play, period. They don’t care what song, so I think I’m covering all the bases here. What I’ve got to do is figure out how much album tracks, and besides the logical set list, what else to play. So I’m going to be figuring that out in the first couple of shows.
You have some room to play around when you’re not going from town to town and have to make sure the lights are set right and you get a sound check.
Exactly. That’s the good thing about having a residency for a couple of nights. I’m really going to involve the audience to see how to do it, and I think by the third night I’ll really have a good idea of how to put a show together. I’ve taken the production up a notch, so it’ll be more than just a concert. I’m hoping it’ll really be an event.
You have plenty of experience playing with loose bands. Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band goes back a couple of decades. Do you already have musical guests lined up, or people you want to ask?
Well, yeah. We’ll see who shows up. It’s pretty close to the holiday season, but it is also before anybody’s touring schedule really starts so we’ll see who shows up. There’s that variable too.
I saw a clip of the giant video screen behind the stage during your last tour, which you seemed pretty proud of. Are you expanding on that for your six-day run at House of Blues?
I think we’ll basically go with that. I’m tempted to try a four- or five-song acoustic section with some of those songs. If the audience is really coming to rock I’m sure they’ll be polite, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. It may be. I don’t really know how to structure the show, like I say. I’m really interested in this, how to put together “An Evening with … ”, so we’re going to put together more stuff than we need and try stuff out, and see what the audience really gets off on.
How did this come about in the first place? Did somebody suggest it to you or were you looking for a place to land for a few days and play multiple dates.
Well, I watched a bunch of people. Carlos (Santana) had a good run with it. It’s an interesting thing to have a residency. It’s a really interesting concept, and it’s great for us because it’s like having a home group, and we know the room and we’ll know how to sound great and look great in it.
In clips I’ve seen, your playing and your voice sound great, especially your voice. You’ve been able to maintain your upper register pretty well.
I’m pretty amazed at that too. I don’t know why that is. You know, in the old days we would just drink all night and go to the next gig, but those days are gone. To do this I really have to take care of myself. I have to go to the f*ckin’ gym every day. I hate that but it makes a big difference on stage, and I have to eat well and I have to sleep. I don’t want to do this and suck. I really don’t. As long as I can do it, I’m gonna. And I still got it.
You ended the year winning the MoPop (Museum of Pop Culture) award and being recognized along with the Eagles at the Kennedy Center Honors. That had to be a mind-blower.
Yeah, it was. I was very humble and had a great time. I don’t know what to think of it.
The Seattle jam was incredible, but to be honored alongside James Taylor, Al Pacino and Mavis Stapes at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington D.C., that must have been surreal. Did Obama’s shout-out to you make you want to chainsaw through the drywall in a hotel room for old time’s sake?
He got me pretty good. He got a couple of really good ones in there (laughs). I don’t know. I’m really grateful and really humble. I don’t really know what to say about that. I’m not done yet.
When the president knows about your penchant for destroying hotel rooms, somehow you’ve arrived.
Yeah, and I was going to ask him for a pardon, but I guess I don’t need it.