Backup singer for The Eagles… Not something I’d ever expect to have on my resume, but there you have it. I’ve known about last night’s gig for a couple of months but those of us in the Opera Birmingham chorus who participated all signed non-disclosure agreements and were forbidden to talk about it until after the fact. So now I can sit down and write about and ruminate on what it was like to be part of a major touring concert show. A couple of things to get out of the way: no, I didn’t meet Don Henley or Vince Gill (singing Glenn Frey’s vocals), yes I was paid (medico-legal work pays much better), no I didn’t get to keep the choir robe but I do have my laminated backstage pass on a lanyard as a souvenir.
The Eagles current tour has a big production number at the end of the first act in which Don Henley sings ‘The Last Resort’ which, as the number builds, requires a full string orchestra and a back up choir. It’s a good deal cheaper for the tour to hire these locally at each stop than to pay for thirty instrumentalists and twenty-four singers for several months, not to mention feed and house them. Opera Birmingham got a call from the tour back in September asking if we could provide the chorus. A chance to sing with The Eagles? Getting Opera Birmingham’s name and people in front of an audience of nearly 20,000 at The Legacy Arena? It was a no-brainer and we quickly signed up. Last evening, many of the chorus regulars gathered at the opera offices for a quick rehearsal (eight bars of I-IV-V-I chords on ‘AH’ isn’t difficult to learn) and then caravanned over to the arena.
We were met there by a tour functionary who gave us backstage passes and marshalled us into a large greenroom, later joined by the members of the string orchestra (mainly players from the Alabama Symphony Orchestra) to wait until our cue. We couldn’t see a lot, but when the concert started about 90 minutes later, we could certainly hear it, even if it was a bit muffled by various doors and drapes. About forty-five minutes into the set, the strings were lined up and marched out to their places . We followed about twenty minutes later, dressed in gold choir robes supplied by the tour, winding our way through the bowels of the arena, past the various dressing rooms, craft services stations, wardrobe, make-up, engineering departments and the like. Eventually we came to a loading dock type area full of enormous road cases and foot lockers and a lot of technical types and then were funneled into a backstage area and onto a set of rising platforms.
Hurry up and wait and stand waiting for cue. At the right moments, the platforms with the chorus and the strings rose up behind the band and a dozen cameras started photographing us and projecting us on the huge Jumbotron screen that formed the backdrop. Number reaches climax. We sing our ‘AH’. Number ends. Pandemonium in the house and standing ovation as the audience has recognized locals blown up to forty feet high on screen. Acknowledgement of our contribution from Don Henley and we are lowered back into the depths of the backstage area. Shed robe, collect souvenir merch and we are done.
It was rather an incredible experience and full of firsts. First time to perform for an arena sized audience. First time to perform with an internationally known act. First time appearing larger than life on a Jumbotron screen. Also, as president of the Opera Board of Directors, I am very grateful to have had an opportunity to get the organization in front of a whole new audience, many of whom may not have realized that Birmingham has a professional opera company. We probably reached more new people last night than in the previous few years combined.
The tour was taking standard Covid precautions seriously. Masks on unless actively eating or drinking or on stage. No going backstage into areas you didn’t need to be in. No hanging out with the tour crew other than those responsible for corralling the chorus and orchestra (and after multiple stops, they have it down to a science). A tour like this is a multi-million dollar extravaganza and Covid among the artists would be disastrous.
Generationally, I am in the sweet spot for The Eagles. I was born in 1962. We form our musical tastes generally between ages 12 and 25 (1974-1987 for me). Their Greatest Hits album (the blue one with the bird skull) came out just as I was really discovering pop music. Hotel California came out my freshman year of high school and The Long Run came out my senior year of high school. Their music is very much interwoven with my adolescence and coming of age. Pretty much any of their songs can quickly take me back to a memory of the 70s or early 80s. I’m trying to imagine going back in time and trying to explain to teenage Andy that one day, he would be onstage with that band singing back up vocals before 20,000 people. Teenage Andy would have assumed serious mental illness and looked for the nearest exit. Funny how some of the threads of events and people come and go in the tapestry of our lives.