Last month, Joe Walsh wrapped up the Eagles’ sold-out residency in Las Vegas, where the band performed Hotel California in its entirety — followed by a 23-song bonus set of greatest hits — with help from a 46-piece orchestra and 22-member chorus. Preparing for those shows was a mammoth undertaking, but it still pales in comparison to Walsh’s next project: overseeing the third annual VetsAid charity show, which brings a lineup of guitar heroes and roots-rockers to Houston’s Toyota Center on November 10th.
“I’ve played other people’s charities, but running one yourself is a whole different story,” says Walsh, who launched VetsAid in 2017 to help fund veterans charities at the grassroots level. “This started off as an idea, and sometimes, things are better left that way, but VetsAid became real! This year, we’ve got the Doobie Brothers, ZZ Top, Brad Paisley, Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, and me. You’re not gonna hear that lineup at any other concert.”
For Walsh, VetsAid has become something of a personal crusade. His biological father, a flight instructor for the U.S. Army, was stationed in Okinawa during the build-up to the Korean War. He suffered a fatal crash in 1949 while flying the Lockheed F-80, America’s first operational fighter jet. Walsh, just 20 months old at the time, has been forever affected by the loss.
“I grew up with a part of me missing, which was my father,” he says. “I never really knew him. I always wondered, ‘What if?’ I wondered if he would approve of what I was doing. I’m sure he would’ve told me to get a haircut a couple of times.”
Walsh credits the experience with deepening his empathy for other Gold Star families who’ve lost relatives during times of conflict. It also opened his eyes to a battle that remains sadly unfinished: the struggle of American veterans to acclimate to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of combat.
“I see a forgotten war that’s ongoing, and more suicides than combat deaths,” he notes of the veteran experience. “Guys are coming home shattered, and the transition back to civilian life is too high of a mountain to climb for a lot of them. It’s especially hard for those who don’t live on the east or west coasts. There are regional help centers in the middle of the country where vets can get assistance, but those places don’t really have a budget. I’ve been looking for the ones that are valid, and I’m raising money to try and keep them going. That’s what VetsAid is all about.”
The shows have raised $1.2 million over the past two years. Roughly $800,000 of that total came from last year’s event in Tacoma, Washington, where Walsh shared the bill with Haim, James Taylor, Chris Stapleton, and Don Henley. Although the 2019 lineup won’t feature any other members of Eagles, it will reunite Walsh with Sheryl Crow — whose newest release, Threads, features a Walsh cameo — as well as his old touring partners, the Doobie Brothers.
“We used to mess with each other onstage,” he says of the Doobies, who, like the other acts on the bill, will perform an abridged set focusing on radio hits. “They did something to me — I don’t even want to tell you what they did, but it involved the Chippendales — so in retaliation, I got a petting zoo to come onstage during their set, which was almost easier than calling people and asking them to play VetsAid! At least the animals couldn’t say ‘no.'”
Drew Carey, who served in the United States Marines for six years during the 1980s before launching his TV career, will serve as the unofficial emcee of VetsAid 2019, reprising his role from last year. Walsh has planned a few attractions offstage, too, including “an area for Gold Star kids and Gold Star families to meet each other, where the kids can play video games and talk to one another and form friendships, and families can come together, network and exchange resources.” For those who are mostly there for the music, though, he promises speedy turn-around times between sets, cheap ticket prices and, if the mood is right, some one-off collaborations. The one caveat? Fans are asked to check their political baggage at the gates.
“This is not political,” Walsh insists. “People who don’t approve of each other in a political sense can still come together and sit next to each other. In these divided days, it’s a wonderful healer and unifier to just put down all of that contention, come into a show neutrally, hear really good music and support the vets.”
After all, the goals of VetsAid reach deeper than the Democrat/Republican divide.
“I wish there was more public awareness,” says Walsh, whose own political past includes two half-serious runs for public office — including a 1980 bid for the presidency that found him promising, if elected, to turn “Life’s Been Good” into the country’s new national anthem. “We’re sending a message that we have the vets’ back, and that there is help available. I think that people are gong to leave a lot happier than they were, with a sense of what America is supposed to be about.”