July 9th, 2014 at 8:47 am
What remains to be said about Willie Nelson?
What we already know about the man/music icon/Texan/jazz artist/outlaw/everyman makes him one of the more fascinating characters to ever grace a stage.
Some of those things we know well: his near failings as a musician before eventual success, his smoking of weed long before Colorado and Washington ever considered legalizing it, his fondness for a beat-up old guitar and his lack of fondness for the Internal Revenue Service.
And, of course, his ability to write a beautiful song.
How well you know these things and how much they do or don’t endear you to Nelson likely colored your experiences at his Monday night (July 7) show at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion. Joined by premiere openers Alison Krauss and Union Station and Jason Isbell, it combined for an uncomfortably packed venue. Krauss and Isbell certainly drew several fans of their own, but this was Nelson’s show.
Rarely have I heard such a great rift in opinions regarding a live music show. Concerts can create their own special magic, and if they achieve that threshold, the audience knows it. A lackluster concert usually yields an appropriately lackluster response. Yet last night, I heard conviction from both sides of the good or bad argument, and much fewer from those in the middle. More simply put, you loved this show, or you just as strongly did not love it.
I suspect those coming into the show having already appointed him a saint-in-waiting found little to dissuade them. His trademark slightly-off-the-mark vocal phrasings were, well, slightly off the mark. His guitar fretwork, even at 81 years of age, was lightning quick. He played the pretty riff in “On the Road Again” faster than he ever played it on an album. He played so many of his hits, and he led off, like he always does, with “Whiskey River.” He strummed so hard and so quickly I kept worrying he’d punch another hole in Trigger, his guitar of many decades.
I further suspect those walking in with indifference remained so, or worse. A Willie Nelson concert is in some ways a lesson in rote recitation — he has, after all, led off with the aforementioned “Whiskey River” at every show for the past two decades, I think. Willie’s vocal and instrumental ramblings can be disorienting. Even if you know the song well, the way it’s offered in the present makes it difficult to sing. No one sings quite like Willie, and even though his voice has lost some of its sustain — he kept talking through what he once sung — his voice still sounds as it always has. Still, I get the criticisms, with the partial songs, the halting voice and the sometimes waning energy.
What does that leave everyone with? Not much in the way of newness. He released a new album, “Band of Brothers,” just three weeks ago. He played only one of the songs from that album, the title track. His setlist instead was populated with his own hits and traditional country standards from the likes of Kris Kristopherson, Billy Joe Shaver and even Toby Keith.
But it’s a lyric from “Band of Brothers” I keep going back to when I think about Monday night’s show. “We’re a band of brothers and sisters and whatever / On a mission to break all the rules.”
That latter part has always been Nelson’s way — from the marijuana to the tax issues to the way he delivers music. It takes a stout jazz band behind him — you know Willie Nelson’s music is deeply rooted in French guitar jazz, right? — to keep up with Nelson, filling in behind or catching up when he goes on tangents, which is often.
He offered a tangent later in the set, although it too was part of a Nelson standard. Three members of Alison Krauss and Union Station — Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Dan Tyminski — and opening act Jason Isbell all joined Nelson for a closing run of traditional gospel songs such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
That threw a little life into the proceedings and closed the briskly paced 80-minute set.
Five minutes after the last note rang out, a nice tour bus, the one I assume is Nelson’s, rolled off the AMP grounds.
Periodically, Krauss and company could have used a little of that spark in their 75-minute co-headlining set. With the size of the crowd, and considering the volume of the audience members who were talking, I struggled to hear Krauss on several songs. On softer numbers, such as the gorgeous a capella gospel number “Down to the River to Pray,” members of the crowd took to shushing those around them, meaning no one got what they wanted. That song, and likewise “When You Say Nothing At All,” were almost inaudible. That’s a shame.
The set did contain a few surprises, however. Krauss could also barely be heard in her between-song banter, and although she introduced guitarist Dan Tyminski as the voice behind George Clooney’s character in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the crowd seemed shocked at hearing the familiar chords and voice. Kind of like the famous scene in the movie, where everyone goes wild at the recognition of a great track. In fact, I’d venture to say that during a night filled with carefully created and followed set lists, the most unpredictable element of the night was the crowd. I never seemed to know which song would amuse, bring them to their feet or silence them.
The stellar musicianship, meanwhile, continued with Union Station, particularly courtesy of Jerry Douglas, who many of us got to watch at last year’s Fayetteville Roots Festival.
That followed the excellence of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. My love for that group is well documented. To wit:
If you can, get to the AMP early tonight and catch opener @JasonIsbell. He’s one of the best songwriters out there right now. On at 7 p.m.
— What’s Up (@NWAWhatsup) July 7, 2014
But the band, just as the others did, seemed lethargic coming out of the gates. It’s hard to appease any crowd that’s walking through the gates when you’re onstage. Even so, Isbell’s best song from his best album, a tune called “Cover Me Up” from 2013’s “Southeastern,” drew a yell of recognition at its start.
That’s how much of the night went for the performers, actually. Hollers when the songs began, and extended applause at their conclusion, with little in between. Everyone who wanted to yell could, and everyone who wanted to wonder what the fuss was about had the same chance.
P.S. If it matters, I own six Willie Nelson albums on vinyl, and I think he’s great.