One of my favorite concert venues is The Hopewell Theater, a jewel in the crown of New Jersey arts venues. Every staff member welcomes you warmly and makes sure that your experience exceeds all of your expectations. On Feb. 15, the legendary Jack Tempchin, best known as the writer or co-writer on huge hits for The Eagles and Eagles member Glenn Frey, offered a veritable feast of songwriting stories and songs — just him, with two guitars, playing to a packed house.
The opening song, “The One You Love” (a Top 20 hit for Frey in 1982), had an air of familiarity that brought back memories for many in the crowd, some of whom have been fans of Tempchin and his musical collaborations for many years. Then he regaled us with stories about his lifelong love of the blues and his early years in music when he never slept at night but used to play at a venue called the Hotel Café, “which was neither a hotel nor a café” — a story that eased us into the beautiful “Loneliest Piano in Town.” By then, he had the audience in the palm of his hand.
Next up was Tempchin’s tale of co-writing with Chris Hillman (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers). According to Tempchin, Hillman was drafted by David Crosby to play bass with The Byrds, although he had never touched a bass in his life, “but he learned fast.” The message of the Tempchin-Hillman song “You Can Go Home” was poignantly delivered in an exquisite performance; it was certainly one of the highlights of the night.
Then it was time for what many had been waiting for: the beginning of the account of the songwriting partnership between Tempchin and his lifelong friend, Frey (who died in 2016). Tempchin talked about co-writing “Smuggler’s Blues” for an episode of “Miami Vice” that Frey starred in; this was followed by a very different but equally engaging acoustic version of the familiar song.
It turns out that during one of their many writing sessions together, Frey was smoking a joint and dropped a load of hot ash on Tempchin’s table, leaving an indelible burn mark. But when Frey started to apologize, Tempchin told him he was happy because he would always be reminded — by the burn mark, which is still there — of how great their lives were at that time.
Later in the show, Tempchin shared with us the process for their co-write on “It’s Your World Now.” Frey told him he wanted to write a song for his children, a kind of legacy to leave them with. Tempchin’s slow, easy, heartfelt delivery of this special song was unforgettable and was a perfect tribute for his friend. But the pivotal moment of the show was still to come.
Tempchin told us that he had found a beautiful place to live in California “that Glenn would have loved,” close to the beach with stunning sunsets. He would go to this special place and think of Frey, and in one of those visits he came up with the concept for his stunning tribute to his friend, “Never Had the Chance to Say Goodbye.” His performance of the song at the Hopewell Theater was so moving and beautiful that it is seared in my mind as a perfect example of love, friendship and the art of using simple words and phrases to convey the biggest feelings.
One of the quaintest things about the evening was Tempchin’s tendency to whistle to himself between songs and stories, especially when changing guitars. You had the feeling of being comfortably installed on his front porch and that this “peaceful easy feeling” of being in his presence could go on all night. He is an amazing storyteller, which is probably why he is such a wonderful songwriter: In both his songs and his stories, he has the ability to make you feel like you were there with him.
This is never more true than in my favorite Tempchin song “Slow Dancing,” which, in recorded form, already puts you right there with the “shadows on the wall.” But Tempchin did this even more so, live, with his gentle and nuanced performance. A special moment for sure.
The stories just poured out of him, from the VW bus trip across America with his then girlfriend, now wife, which had us in stitches to the culmination of the trip in Jackson Browne’s New York hotel room as Browne was preparing to perform at Madison Square Garden. Another high point was when Tempchin launched into his co-write with Bobby Whitlock, “Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?,” after telling us about not knowing anything about what Whitlock had already done with Eric Clapton (Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs).
Songs mean so many different things and bring back so many different memories to different people, and that was certainly the case with many of the songs in Tempchin’s setlist at this show. As well as other well-known songs such as the Tempchin-Frey composition “Privacy,” there were a couple of beautiful songs that were new: “Learn to Dance” and “Tumbleweed.” Another standout was a new song from Tempchin’s current project, where he is writing music to go along with the words of his favorite poems. The treat for this show was his adaptation of “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson —“Up in the air I go flying again/Up in the air and down.”
Tempchin is proud of the fact that he was part of one of the only two musical acts signed by Clive Davis who did not go on to be successful. My favorite quote of the night was, “I am not lazy about writing songs, but I’m really lazy about everything else.”
He told us that he is writing a book, and everyone cheered. Then he said he is starting a podcast and there was applause. But then he said, “but you know I am really lazy, so I cannot tell you when either of those will happen,” and he had us all laughing again.
At one time in his life, Tempchin ran a nightclub, and before he found out that it wasn’t for him, he and a friend found a big jug of hard cider at the back of the club, and although he never drank or smoked, he apparently could not resist the pull of the hard cider. In his own words, they both got pretty looped and wrote a song in 20 minutes, then got up and performed it onstage without even knowing what it was called. Then a few years later, Frey called him and said, “What ever happened to that little country song you had?” He found it and sent it to Frey and, the next day, Frey called back and played him the Eagles’ version of his hard cider 2o-minute song, “Already Gone.” Tempchin then went on to get the Hopewell audience to join him in the higher parts of the song as he delivered his blistering performance.
Then it was time to bring the show to a close. Tempchin thanked us for doing the most important thing in life, “showing up,” and then he thanked himself for showing up. More laughter, and then he launched into a show-stopping performance of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” — a brilliant description of his entire show.
A Jack Tempchin concert is a thing of beauty — a carefully curated adventure featuring one jewel of a song after another, interspersed with stories that are both poignant and hilarious. At one point in 90-minute, 15-song show, he promised us that later he would “fly through the air like Garth Brooks” — but there was truly no need for acrobatics.
Here is the show’s setlist:
“The One You Love”
“Loneliest Piano in Town”
“You Can Go Home”
“Always Magic When the Sun Goes Down”
“Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?”
“Learning to Dance”
“It’s Your World Now”
“Never Had the Chance to Say Goodbye”
“Peaceful Easy Feeling”
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