How Joe Walsh and the James Gang Reunited: Exclusive Interview
In part, the concerts were inspired by the death of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who was a lifelong fan and grew very close with the band. He could be spotted at many Foo Fighters gigs wearing a James Gang T-shirt or hat while behind the kit. Hawkins even went so far as to pay tribute to the group in the artwork for his music. "I told Joe at one point, in addition to the personal loss, we lost our biggest fan," Fox tells UCR.
The revitalized trio just completed the first of two shows in memory of Hawkins, as part of an all-star lineup in London. They'll reprise that moment at a second star-studded tribute in Los Angeles later this month. Finally (at least for now), they'll headline Walsh's annual VetsAid benefit in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 13.
Fox spoke with UCR in the days following their return to action in London to discuss the initial performance and what's ahead for the James Gang.
How did this current James Gang reunion come together?
Well, we had been talking. This is, I think, either the third or fourth year in a row of doing Joe’s veterans charity show – and COVID kicked [in] and all of the sudden, there weren’t any shows. They were all being canceled. We just sat through them, basically. Every year we would talk and say, “Are you going to do this?” “Yeah, let’s do it, man! If there is one!” And then there wasn’t one. This year, when Joe called, he said, “You know, it looks like we might get it done. Plus, we’re looking at Columbus, so it ought to be a little bit special for Ohio.” He said, “I’m sort of thinking of an Ohio-centric lineup. So if we’re good, let’s work towards that.” I said, “Of course we are!” He said, “While we’re on the subject, I’ve spoken with Dave Grohl. You know, there’s two Taylor Hawkins tribute concerts coming up and he wondered if we would be interested in doing that.” I said, “Are you really asking that question?” [Laughs.] I said, “Yeah, it would be an absolute thrill.” He said, “Well, I think we can do it!” I just put it on the waitlist to hear the results and back came [the message] that we were on. That’s really the long and short of it. I suspect that Dave and Joe had been talking. They were tight. As tight as I was with Taylor, Joe was that tight too. It just wasn’t shocking to hear that there might be a chance for us to do it. So we said yes and at the same time, Dave said yes to [playing] Joe’s thing. That put the plans in motion.
What was the rehearsal process like?
Everyone started on their own. You know, we weren’t sure how much time we were going to be allotted. We had to be a little bit flexible with the songs that we learned. We knew it would be between three and five. The fifth one at that point would have been “Funk #49” which we would have used as an encore with Dave had it gone that way. But as the time approached, it started to look more and more like time was going to be crucial. As confident as Joe was that we could have the time that we needed, TV took over. All of the sudden, the decisions shifted, from everywhere they were being made specifically to the TV people. It came back to us, “three songs it is.” Joe wanted to take a stand and say, “No, we’re not doing that.” We talked about it a lot and decided that’s not the place to make the stand. You know, it’s out of Dave’s control. It’s out of everyone’s control. It’s in the hands of television. So we thought, “Well, let’s do the best we can to kick ass at three." There wasn’t much question as to which three [songs]. We were pretty confident. “Walk Away” and “Funk #49” were no-brainers, so where’s your third song? “The Bomber” seemed to be the one. Once we got to Los Angeles, we had arranged five days of rehearsal. We had a full soundstage. We wound up rehearsing usually at noon, for four or five hours. We did it every day and I don’t think we took a day off, but we did start late one day. That was as much rehearsal as it was when we were all kids. It was, let’s get into a room, let’s get face to face and let’s get right to this. We worked like dogs.
Dave joined in to play drums with you on "Funk #49." But he was behind you and you couldn't see him.
Here’s the interesting part and I mentioned it to the band. I said, “Do you realize that there are 90,000 people out there? I am the only person in this venue who can’t see Dave.” [Laughs.] It drove me nuts. But the reason we set up the way we did is because we had an idea of how we wanted to be on that stage. We wanted to be tight, together and we wanted to be low. We fought a major battle with the producers to get that lower drum riser. We almost threatened to walk. "Look, this is television, we call the shots. The risers are all three feet high and there’s a reason for it and the reason is TV." We took a little walk and went, “Shit, man!” We based our whole concept on the way we used to play [in the early days] at JB’s in Kent, Ohio, in the bar. We wanted to be as close to face-to-face as we could possibly be. We wanted to be at the same level and we didn’t want to spread out. You know, we could have been 100 feet across, but we wanted to be 15 feet across. We wanted to make it like a bunch of guys playing together. We didn’t even use in-ear monitors. We played to ourselves. I bet we were the only band that did. We listened to our own playing, nothing added, nothing stuck in your ears. Just the good old-fashioned stage wedge monitors and that type of thing. We listened to the sound that was naturally being made on the stage rather than that. We had a whole bunch of ideas with what we wanted to do.
I think Dave helped us [resolve the issue], to be honest. Because the next morning, we had our 12-inch riser and it was great. The problem is, with all of those groups and two-and-a-half minute changes, every set of drums was on wheels. Everything else in the backline was fixed. We didn’t see a way to squeeze Dave in on the same line. He kind of had to be where that other drum set was. So he’s behind us, does this bother anybody else? No, because they all have good eye contact. They all have a good direct line of sight to him. Unfortunately, I can’t turn my neck 180 degrees and there was no visual monitor that I could see. At the soundcheck, we talked about it and we smiled about it. Dave said, “Don’t worry.” I said, “Yeah, I suppose you have experience double drumming.” He says, “Yeah, a couple of times!” He said, “Don’t worry, just do what you do and I’ll be watching you – and he was. I thought he did a typical Grohl job – which is to say “spectacular,” especially with one of us not being able to see the other. He just killed it, man. You know how I feel about those guys. It’s his nature. It was perfect.
Watch the James Gang Reunite in 2006
When the band toured in 2006, there was a keyboard player and background singers. It was great to see you guys take the old-school approach and play as a trio in London.
[Laughs.] That was an absolute, deliberate result of the conversations we were having. We wanted to go back to that. That’s what we wanted. Now, this is premature, because we’ve got to get through Los Angeles first, but of course, we’re already talking about the Columbus show. Columbus, we’ve agreed, is the proper venue to spread it out a little bit more. We’ve asked Mark Avsec [from Donnie Iris' band] to play on keys and we’ve talked about female vocalists. I don’t think we’ve actually hired anybody. Dale and I tend to leave that to Joe anyhow. Joe’s out where the musicians are, so it’s easy for him to get the right people. Joe says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got the singers covered.” “Oh yeah, who’d you get?” “Well, I don’t know yet.” [Laughs.] But in his mind, I believe now that we’ve got it covered to the point where we’re going to use background singers. They are so valuable in two ways. First of all, it takes some of the responsibility for what’s going on on stage off of Joe’s shoulders, him having to worry about all of the singing by himself. The other thing is, how do you argue with the singer when he says to you, “I could use the help.” That shut me up instantaneously because I hadn’t really thought of it that way.
What made the trio thing special is that we haven't seen that format of the band for a lot of years.
Believe me, we heard from plenty of people in ‘06, “Why? What’s wrong with what you did in the first place?” We heard that endlessly from a certain group of people who are purists. They want to hear it the way it was. You know, we’re not arguing that point. We’re just trying to put on a good show. We want to make it as good as we can make it. That’s the only logic I have for ya. I noticed at the London show, they had a permanent set of background singers, who showed up wherever they were needed. I thought, “What an interesting concept!” I wondered if we would have done anything differently, had we known that was available to us – which we didn’t. I think and I trust that we made the right decision to do it as a trio.
It was incredible. It really was.
I’m glad you liked it. I’m still so wrapped up in it that I don’t think I have an objective opinion of what we did. I feel as if I got most of my notes right. [Laughs.] That’s about as far as I can go. It felt great playing with the other guys. It felt like we were totally into it. You know, it felt really good, but you don’t hear very well when you’re playing – even if the monitors are good. It doesn’t sound the same through the monitors on stage as it does through the speakers in the crowd. That’s the musician’s lament, you never really know what you’re sounding like out there.
The VetsAid show in Columbus is being billed as One Last Ride. What does that look like from your perspective?
The way it was promoted, it looks to Dale and me, as if they were going for the biggest hype possible. When you present it that way, you sort of buy yourself a little bit of insurance that there will be attention, that sort of thing. I don’t think that either Dale or I believe that this is the last round though. You know, maybe that’s just us being optimistic.
I like hearing that.
Well, you know, listening to the way Joe is talking, it doesn’t sound like the last dance. It really doesn’t – but at the same time, we haven’t added anything. The crew, we used all Eagles people. We didn’t use a single outside person. It seemed like the easiest thing to do and it was also a guarantee that we would be getting quality people. Mark [Avsec] was just a carryover; he’s done [previous reunions]. [But] they’re like, “Aren’t you guys gonna do a few more shows? I mean, we’re ready and we’re out there!” Well, of course, I don’t have an answer, but plenty of people have their own self-interests in seeing it continue.
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