For the fifth annual year, guitarist Joe Walsh is raising awareness and funds for veterans through VetsAid, a concert series which has raised nearly $2 million since its inception, with proceeds benefiting the rocker’s 501(c)3 non-profit organization and veterans across the country.
As a Gold Star son, the mission for Walsh is a personal one. Before the guitarist reached the age of 2, his father, while on active duty as a flight instructor, was killed in a plane crash in Okinawa.
For the second straight year, Walsh has been forced to take his event online amidst pandemic and this year’s ticketed event, available with merch bundles to stream between December 18 and 25th, will focus on combating homelessness in the veteran community.
As part of that effort, Walsh visited the U.S. VETS facility in Long Beach, California, one which provides a variety of supportive services to 800 veterans each day, interaction which will be seen when the VetsAid livestream premieres December 18.
This year, alongside his wife Marjorie Walsh and stepson Christian Quilici, VetsAid co-founders, the guitarist will take fans into his home, offering a rare glimpse behind the scenes at his guitar collection and basement studio, one which recently served as home during sessions spent recording the first new Joe Walsh songs in 10 years, music which will make its debut during this year’s VetsAid event.
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“We asked everybody to write in questions. And we got like 1,500 questions. So we went into rapid fire answering questions. And some of the questions are crazy! So are the answers. But that was my favorite segment,” said Walsh of this year’s VetsAid streaming event, one which will also feature performances by artists like James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, ZZ Top, Eddie Vedder, Willie Nelson, Nathaniel Rateliff and more. “All of the bands that performed for the first three shows where we did live shows, we have unseen footage of them. So there’s about 15 bands that we all know and love doing songs we’ve never heard live one after another.”
In addition to the new music, an “All Star(r) Jam” will also highlight this year’s VetsAid event, one live from the basement featuring Walsh, Waddy Wachtel, Benmont Tench, Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Ringo Starr, with whom Walsh performed as a member of the inaugural All-Starr Band in 1989.
I spoke with Joe Walsh about this year’s VetsAid event, the role of music during uncertain times and maintaining a sense of optimism. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
You were so young when your father passed away. How important is it, especially at the holidays, for you to honor his legacy through this event?
JOE WALSH: Yeah I’m resonant to Gold Star kids and Gold Star families. Because I’ve been there and I’ve done that – and it’s always been with me. Eventually, it was part of me really wanting to do something for vets and make a difference – especially for their families.
What does it mean to you now as VetsAid enters its fifth year, having been able to sustain it twice despite the logistical hurdles put in place by pandemic?
JW: Well, we’re just celebrating being able to do it. We had a live concert planned in Columbus, Ohio. And that was about three months ago when we had to confirm the hall and everything – and we had a COVID surge. So it’s gotta be virtual again this year.
Last year we really didn’t have a clue. But I think we’ve got down how to do it this year. There’s tons of entertainment. It’s December 18th and once you sign on, you can watch as many times as you want anytime you want until Christmas day.
Your wife and stepson are part of the livestream event too and you’re literally taking fans into your home. What’s it like inviting fans in in that way?
JW: It’s fun! Where the basement should be, it’s kind of a man cave/mad scientist laboratory with wires and tubes and everything all over the place – and a recording studio. And there’s a bunch of guitars lying around. So we go through all of that. It’s a crazy person’s dream down there! And that’s where we’re going.
Also, I went into that studio to work on what’s going to be a new album for next year. And we went in and filmed all of that.
And you’ll be debuting some of that new music during this event. Is there anything you can spoil about those songs or that recording process for us ahead of the special?
JW: There’s a great blues song that I wrote called “Backdoor Blues.” We had a really good pass at recording that. I had recorded it a couple of times but it just sounded like another blues song. But this time there’s really some mojo in it.
I wrote a song about COVID – after the fact. During COVID, I couldn’t write. I just didn’t know how it was gonna turn out. But, in retrospect, I’ve got a pretty good song about COVID.
There’s another song I’ve been working on forever – five years maybe. And finally I got that together.
So there’s all kinds of stuff – all new Joe Walsh stuff that doesn’t sound like the old stuff. That’s what I’m proud of.
I know you visited the U.S. VETS facility in Long Beach which we’ll see during this special. What was that experience like?
JW: Wonderful. I was really impressed. It’s an old Navy base I guess. But the Defense Department made it available. And it is a place for homeless vets. It’s a shelter. And it’s a place to get a good meal and meet other vets and get healthier and get interviewed for a job. Everybody there was really positive and really grateful. And I think it’s a model. There should be more of those across the country. Because homeless vets? That’s not OK. It’s just not. And that’s kind of our focus this year.
As part of VetsAid there’s also going to be an “All Star(r) Jam” session and you’ve certainly put together an impressive band for that. What can we look forward to during that performance?
JW: Oh we just let it rip! I didn’t want to tell anybody what to do. It’s about a 20 minute jam that’s just mach two – we’re just going mach two through the whole thing. And it’s really good players. Just watching that… I could watch that alone five or six times!
In addition to the familial relationship, your musical relationship with Ringo Starr goes back even further. Growing up as a fan of The Beatles, what’s it been like for you playing with and getting to know him over all these years?
JW: It’s so special. I mean, he’s my brother-in-law. And, besides music, we have a great family relationship. But sometimes I’ll be playing and look over and go, “Holy moly! It’s Ringo!” And I can never get past that. I’m still in awe of all of those guys. Because that’s the reason I’m doing what I do, you know? I went and saw them play and said, “I wanna be like that.” And it worked.
You hit on this earlier but obviously COVID has made things a little crazy for so many people, musicians included. What, in your opinion, is the role of music during uncertain times like these?
JW: Here’s what I noticed… We finally got the Eagles out to play live concerts. And we’re in a bubble – we can’t have family or guests backstage. We can’t go to the gym in the hotel. It’s really more like a job, the logistics of the tour.
But I’m telling you, when we walk out on stage, people I think that would normally disagree – and that disagreement would turn into screaming or yelling and probably a fistfight – people that normally would have that dynamic sit next to each other and everybody gets along. And everybody sings the words. And everybody goes home really happy.
And that hits me in the heart. To be able to do that and get that energy off the audience – they’re so happy to be there! And that makes the other 21 hours of the day worth it.
You strike me as a pretty positive guy. How important is it to try and maintain, even if it’s difficult, some semblance of optimism right now?
JW: I think it’s really important.
At first, I spent a lot of the COVID year just thinking, “Oh my god, by the time they figure this out, I’ll be too old to play. I’m never gonna play live again. That’s it for live music.” And I went dark. I really did. And I had to slap myself in the face and turn it around – and get busy and do stuff. It’s really easy to isolate and go dark in this day and age. And I’ve been there and done that. And that’s not the way to do it.
So I’m really glad to be doing music again and working through it. And playing live music for people. That’s brought me back. Now I have great hopes for the future.