Fly Like the Eagles
Fly Like the Eagles
A Q&A with Ken Darcy of EagleMania
By Geoff Gehman
Ken Darcy is a vocalist, guitarist and listener enabler in EagleMania, which performs crisp, compelling versions of songs minted by the Eagles, a gold standard for countrified rock and California outlaw rock. He doesn’t look, sound or act like Glenn Frey, the Eagles’ late co-founder, co-composer and co-leader with Don Henley. All he cares about is faithfully and vividly singing and playing Frey’s original notes on everything from “Tequila Sunrise” to “Heartache Tonight.” He loves siphoning the spirit of Frey & Co.’s ’70s-’80s concert heyday, reminding fans why they became fans, leading the whole house in the final verse of “Already Gone,” another Frey calling card.
Darcy has been mining the group and solo Eagles catalog since 2011, when he helped launch EagleMania. A middle-school science teacher in his native New Jersey, he’s played Frey-Henley tunes everywhere from a library to a church, casinos to a fair/rodeo. On Nov. 23-24 he and his four comrades will return to ramp up the Mauch Chunk Opera House with “Take It Easy,“ “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Seven Bridges Road,” which they sang at the home field of the Green Bay Packers.
Below, in a conversation from a car in Woodbridge, N.J., where he was waiting to pick up his daughter from a guitar lesson, Darcy discusses his Eagles baptisms, mixing hits with wild cards, and studying voice with Gian-Carlo Menotti, the fabled composer of “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that absolutely laid you flat?
A: I would have to say the first song that really blew me away was “Aja,” the title track of Steely Dan’s album. I was 10 or 11 years old when I heard it on an eight-track tape that I got in the mail. I signed up for this deal in TV Guide where you could buy all these tapes for a penny. I didn’t know the back end [of the cost]; my mom was pretty mad [laughs]. “Aja” was like magic to me: the whole song is like a giant suspended chord. Everything on the album is incredible—the playing, the engineering, the fidelity. What made it even better was that I listened to it on one of those big stereo units my dad had just bought. You could hear every little shift, every little twist, every little nuance. It just made my head explode.
Q: What was the first Eagles tune that turned you on, that made you think this band was worth tracking?
A: I heard all their songs on the radio for years, from 1973 on. The song that really turned my head and wrapped my heart was “The Sad Café” [from the 1979 album “The Long Run”], which is kind of surprising since it wasn’t really a hit. On the first listen through I thought, wow, what a beautiful, beautiful song; I was blown away by the harmonies. The Eagles have great songwriters and great guitar players but it’s the harmonies that really stand out. It isn’t just their voices; it’s the voicing and the stacking of the chords that are first class and special.
Q: You’re my very first interviewee who plays Eagles songs who studied with a renowned classical composer–Gian-Carlo Menotti—and an accompanist—Howard “Duke” Anderson—for a renowned jazz composer, Duke Ellington. What were the best tips you picked up from those very different teachers?
A: I was in my late teens when they taught me. I used to drive into New York City to Carlo Menotti’s studio on Central Park; when you’re 16 you can do whatever you want [laughs]. I always played guitar and a little keyboard and I always sang but I really didn’t know much about singing. With Carlo Menotti I made that connection between your diaphragm and your stomach, that you can’t really go for a note if you can’t support it with air. I also learned that you have to treat your body as an instrument. You have to do the simple things like getting enough sleep. You have to take care of your body, so it will take care of you.
Duke [Anderson] was a great jazz pianist from the ’30s to the ’50s, that wheelhouse era when New York City was the center of the jazz universe. He played with Duke Ellington and he played with Dizzy Gillespie. The odd thing about Duke was he was my voice teacher even though he didn’t sing. He taught me another connection between an instrument and the voice, that you can listen to a saxophone solo or a piano solo and you can sing it from your own point of view. I learned that when you’re singing a melody you can embellish the chords to change the emotional tone. I learned to use my voice in a more musical way; it opened a whole new world for me.
What I learned from Duke and Carlo Menotti was more subconscious than conscious. I didn’t put those things together in my teens. Looking back, now that I’m in my 50s, I wish I could sit with both of them in a room and pick their brains. It took another five years for all of their lessons to go from my subconscious to my conscious. That’s when I began figuring out how to make a song my own; that’s when I started thinking about my style. Of course all of that goes totally against what I’m doing in EagleMania, where I try to sing as close to the Eagles’ songs as I possibly can.
Q: Why did you sign up for EagleMania? Why did you decide to ride the Eagles train?
A: The band was really formed by John Gaechter, the guitar player, and Frank Reno, the keyboardist, in 2010. They had gone through this huge cast of players when their manager at the time asked me if I wanted to audition. At that time I didn’t have a lot of free time to do side projects. In addition to teaching science I was playing guitar and singing by myself in bars, restaurants and clubs. The manager kept pressing me and finally I said yes, just to get him off my back. I played with Frank and John and I could tell they were really good, really serious musicians. At this point no one had played a concert and we all seemed to be on the same page when we talked about the band’s direction. Our first gig was for a radio show in Ringoes [N.J.] in an old church for about 150 people. We did “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Take It to the Limit”—the core of what we play today.
Q: Your set lists are crammed with Eagles hits: “Witchy Woman,” “Hotel California,” “Desperado.” What would it take for you to fold in some really deep cuts like “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks” and “Waiting in the Weeds”?
A: We have a very solid core of songs in our two sets. We have slots in each set for wild cards; that’s when we rotate in songs like “Try and Love Again” [from the 1976 album “Hotel California”] and “How Long” [from the 2007 album “Long Road Out of Eden”]. It’s difficult to put new songs in because you have to take out old songs, songs audience members would really miss. If we didn’t play “Hotel California” there would be anarchy; if we played all the hits and all the deep cuts we’d be out there for five or six hours. We’re trying to keep the show under two and half hours. Two and a half hours is about as long as you’d want to be onstage, although many people say they wish we played three or four hours. Playing that long would be tough because of the specific way we play. We play and sing the same notes every single show. There’s no room for jamming, no time for relaxing
Q: Can you give me a few examples of the extreme research that allowed you to get under the skin of the Eagles’ very tightly tuned tunes? I’m sure you worked overtime while studying videos, bootlegs and the four-hour documentary “History of the Eagles.”
A: I came to [EagleMania] from a philosophical standpoint. Before we started playing live we had to decide whether we were going to be a tribute band, where each member dresses up and assumes the character of a member of the Eagles, or whether we were going to be a band that tries to get the music correct and allows members of the audience to remember the way they first heard the songs they love. We nixed pretending to be the Eagles and decided to focus strictly on the music. Then we had to decide: Do we play the way the Eagles do now or the way they did in the ’70s and ’80s, before they broke up? Or do we play according to the recordings? It was not an easy decision; it’s a pretty wide spectrum of choices.
We decided to play the way the Eagles did when they toured from ’78 to ’81, without overdubs and backing tracks, without the backline of players they have now, or the horn section they had at one time. We decided to do it bare bones, to give people that feeling when the Eagles were kicking the butt out of these songs.
Then we had to decide: Do we follow the live versions or the studio versions of the songs? We decided to try to keep as faithful to the original recordings as possible, with some exceptions. We take liberties with audience interaction. “Already Gone” is our last song of the night and on the last verse the entire band stops playing and it’s just me trying to get the audience to sing with me. The Eagles have never done that live themselves; that’s just our way of bringing the audience a little closer to us, of breaking down that fourth wall.
We also tell some of the jokes the Eagles tell, or told. If Glenn Frey said something funny before a song in 2000, we’ll cop it.
Q: Speaking of Frey, did you introduce any tributes to him after his sudden death in 2016?
A: Boy, that was really, really tough. Our show is a celebration that allows audience members to go back in time when they first heard these songs, when they were 18 or 19 or 25, to have fun with fun memories. When Glenn passed away we made a conscious decision to avoid making the show somber or sad. We play a few of his songs [i.e., the songs on which he sang lead] in a row and before we do them I’ll say: “I’d like to dedicate these songs to Glenn Frey, so we can celebrate his musical legacy.” That way we keep people in a place of celebration rather than a place of darkness or melancholy.
Q: How has the Eagles tribute band landscape changed since you started EagleMania?. Have you made any significant changes to stay ahead of your competition and the curve?
A: Our lead vocalist [J.D. Kelly] and our bass player [Dennis Espantman] joined us about two years ago; they are the new guys. You know, I don’t really pay attention to what other people are doing. I simply don’t have the time to see another Eagles tribute band. I’d rather spend time on keeping the show high quality, making sure every i is dotted and every t is crossed.
Q: What’s the most unusual, colorful venue you’ve played Eagles songs–beside the North Texas Fair and Rodeo?
A: How about this; the 50-yard line in Green Bay [at Lambeau Field, the home of the Green Bay Packers]? The guy who owns the place where we played in Green Bay has season tickets to Packers games. He got us passes [to Lambeau] on a Saturday and we sang “Seven Bridges Road.” It wasn’t during a game but it was still a lot of fun.
Q: If you had one question to ask Don Henley, what would it be?
A: I’d ask him about what he does with the Walden Woods Project [a nonprofit that supports the Massachusetts nature preserve and the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau, the Walden Pond guru]. One of the reasons I’m interested in the project is that it ties in thematically with [the song] “The Last Resort” [the paradise-lost last track on “Hotel California”].
Q: So, Ken, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I’d like to be at a point in my life where I have the money, the time and the freedom to be as creative as possible. I’d like to spend more time writing and recording music, turning out songs for myself and other people. Producing is massively fun.
Q: What tops your Fuckit List?
A: Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I would like people to really listen to one another without assuming motives based on some mass-media cultural expectations. I want people to be kinder.
Q: What’s your most memorable memories of Jim Thorpe and the Mauch Chunk Opera House?
A: The very first time I came to Jim Thorpe I drove in out of the hills and turned onto [Broadway] and I immediately felt transported back to the 19th century, to the coal industry and the robber barons. Until then I didn’t know this beautiful little town existed. And then I played in this beautifully restored old theater and it made me really, really happy. Of course it took me three shows until I learned how to pronounce “Mauch Chunk.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His first favorite Eagles song was “Train Leaves Here This Morning.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.