Calling an album that spawned a No. 1 single and sold more than two million copies “obscure” seems a bit off.
But when the band is the Eagles — the most commercially successful American group in popular music history that regrouped this month for two Classic West and Classic East festival concerts in Los Angeles and New York — “On the Border” is not the first album that comes to mind. Merely popular gets overlooked when you’ve got a pop culture landmark like the made-in-Miami “Hotel California” in your catalog.
Yet that’s precisely why Mad Cat Theatre Company musical director Paul Tei is so excited about performing the Eagles’ third album as the latest installment of the Mad Cat Live! contemporary concert series.
On July 28-30, Mad Cat’s core group of local musicians, which includes The Goods’ Jim Camacho, The Mystery Tones’ Darren Bruck and The State Of’s Nabedi Osorio, will perform the 1974 Eagles album at Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores.
“On the Border” was a transitional album. Don Henley and the late Glenn Frey, the chief songwriting duo, wanted to move the Eagles away from the country-rock sound on such earlier hits as “Take It Easy.” Wanting a harder rock sound, Henley and Frey chafed at producer Glyn Johns’ insistence that rock was not the Eagles’ forté.
After cutting two tracks in London with Johns, including “The Best of My Love,” which became the Eagles’ first No. 1 hit, the group decamped to Los Angeles to work with producer Bill Szymczyk for the rest of the album. The group also hired Gainesville guitarist Don Felder as the fifth Eagle late in the sessions.
The upheavals inspired Tei’s choice of “On the Border.”
“I didn’t want to deal with any of the perfect albums. I don’t think ‘On the Border’ is perfect by any means. When you have two producers, you can clearly hear the difference in the Glyn Johns and Bill Szymczyk songs,” Tei said. “But it intrigued me to tackle the band as they were finally finding their freedom. This is the most playful the Eagles ever were. After this, all the tension with Bernie [Leadon] starts and Don and Glenn take over. This was them having a good time and celebrating everything that makes freedom in America important.”
Tei ties “On the Border,” which was released about four months before President Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal, into today’s political climate — albeit as an antidote of sorts.
“Another reason for ‘On the Border’ is where we are after Trump got elected and this sense of our freedom going away,” Tei said. “No one is more American than the Eagles. They were the American Beatles. I wanted to pick an album that wasn’t so cynical about the American dream but was celebrating it in a more naive way. There’s definitely a party atmosphere to it.”
Songs like the Jackson Browne-cowrite “James Dean” and the frisky first single, “Already Gone,” a celebratory kiss-off to a relationship gone sour, are the Eagles at its most rollicking. The funky title song, with its whispered “Say goodnight, Dick,” was a rebuke of Nixon and the politics of the time.
“My Man,” Leadon’s tuneful tribute to the late country-rock trailblazer Gram Parsons and a favorite track of Tei’s, and a cover of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” represent the Eagles at the band’s most harmonious. “On the Border” led to the polished rock of the Bicentennial year’s “Hotel California” and the slashing ’70s hangover documented on 1979’s “The Long Run.”
Previous Mad Cat Live! concerts included Paul and Linda McCartney’s “Ram” in 2015 and Neil Young’s “On the Beach” in 2016.
“We’re trying to find records that, I think, are about artists in transitional periods,” Tei said. “All of these records we’ve done — “Ram,” “On the Beach,” “On the Border” — none of these artists made anything like these again. Maybe that’s the connection.”
These three shows will also add some country tunes by Parsons and Roger Miller. Mad Cat’s Darren Bruck has had to learn lap steel during rehearsals.
“That’s been an interesting challenge for him,” Tei said, “but he’s having a good time with that.”