Unlike the Eagles, Joe Walsh did not have to wait for hell to freeze over to reunite with his previous band, the James Gang.
Walsh’s departure from the trio in 1971 was amicable — he even recommended his replacement, the late Tommy Bolin — and he maintained good relationships with drummer Jimmy Fox and bassist Dale Peters in the intervening years.
So it was just a matter of time that finally brought the group back together for special occasions and, this year, its first tour in 35 years.
“Drew Carey had us on his TV show,” Walsh, 58, says, recalling a three-episode arc in which the James Gang appeared as the Horndogs. “That was really fun, and the thing we noticed at that point is we still played pretty good as a three-piece.
“I was pretty surprised, but those guys (Fox and Peters) were right there. They were reading me pretty good. So we could still do it, and that was an important thing to fi nd out.”
The result of that has been the gradual reincarnation of the James Gang as a going concern, alongside Walsh’s continuing work with the Eagles. The group began performing benefi ts in its former home base of Cleveland, always with an eye toward something further reaching.
For Fox, the tour is “the culmination of a 35-year dream.” And for Walsh, it’s a chance to play in a wide-open manner that he’s not afforded in his other musical endeavors.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve turned up and jammed or improvised, to just play without any real plan,” he says. “Mostly I’ve been playing guitar parts of songs, or singing parts that are all planned out. You know what you’re gonna do. It’s like a road map.
“It’s just been a long time since I played with that kind of freedom, and getting together with the guys again made me think about that.”
Fox put the James Gang together as a five-piece band in 1966 in Cleveland, covering songs by Cream, Traffi c, the Yardbirds and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The group went through a couple years of personnel changes, with Kansas native Walsh signing on in 1968 while he and Fox were attending Kent State University.
It was that same year that the band became a trio — before a show opening for Cream at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom.
“There was some argument or something,” Walsh recalls, “and between the time we left Cleveland and got to Detroit, two of the guys quit. So there we were in Detroit, at the Grande, and we didn’t have gas money to drive home. So we had to play.
“We agreed on a format; ‘Let’s do something that the audience recognizes and I’ll sing a couple verses, and then we’ll just kind of launch into the middle part and jam and hopefully make that long enough. If we do that four times in a row, we can get gas money to go home. Yay!’ ”
It worked even better than they expected.
“We got a standing ovation,” Walsh says, “and we did, I think, two encores — which was even more terrifying ’cause we didn’t know any songs in the first place! But we pulled it off and decided to stay as a three-piece.”
The James Gang signed a deal in early 1969 and, with Peters joining on bass, recorded three studio albums and scoring radio hits such as “Funk #49” and “Walk Away.” 1971’s “Live in Concert,” meanwhile, documented the trio’s potent stage show, honed by heavy touring — including a few jaunts with the Who, whose Pete Townshend became a mentor for Walsh.
“I always made it a point to watch those guys,” notes Ted Nugent, who played on bills with the James Gang when he was part of the Amboy Dukes. “Joe’s whole funk guitar playing style was just an inspiring reminder for all of us to just calm down, tune up and play these big, grinding, full chords in a simple rhythm pattern. He really nailed that down.”
Walsh craved more than that, however, leading to his decision to walk away from the James Gang.
“I was a little burnt from a hectic touring schedule,” he explains, “but I was also starting to write stuff that should have background singing or keyboards and multiple guitars. It was really frustrating to be in a three-piece group with all that stuff coming up in my head.
“So I decided to just head out into the great unknown. I thought as a musicians it was the best move to make.”
Walsh enjoyed even greater success as a solo artist with hits such as “Rocky Mountain Way” before he became an Eagle in 1976. Fox and Peters, meanwhile, continued the James Gang — fi rst with Bolan and then with Dominic Troiana — until 1977. They reunited with Walsh for a 1996 campaign rally for President Bill Clinton, paving the road that led to this summer’s tour.
Where the tour will lead is anybody’s guess. There’s talk, but no definite plans, of fi lming a DVD. And nobody is daring to speculate about turning the James Gang into a recording concern again, although Walsh predicts that “we’ll probably come up with new material at some point.”
“You visit different grooves and stuff and they kind of defi ne themselves over three or four shows,” he says. “In the old days, those turned into new James Gang songs.
“I don’t see a whole lot of improvising rock ’n’ roll bands out there now. They’re mostly guys with a lead singer, and they’re performing nice songs that they wrote. I think maybe there’s a little window for a spontaneous group like us. I’m excited to see where it goes.”
The James Gang and the Howling Diablos perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (August 15th) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $39.50 pavilion, $20 lawn; children 12 and under are admitted free with a tic
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