(Review by Roy Kasten)
Over the past decade, Willie Nelson has played just about any St. Louis-area venue which would have him: Mississippi Nights, the Sheldon, county fairs, a minor league baseball park in Sauget, Illinois and Six Flags. Now at the age of 75, Willie gave the Fabulous Fox a go; no living legend more deserves the magically unreal, opulent, byzantine circus of the space. Hank Williams has been called the hillbilly Shakespeare, but it’s Nelson, really, who deserves the comparison (condescending though it may be). From debauchery to kindness, comedy to pathos, love to revenge, crisp narrative to lush lyricism, realism to fantasy, dance to contemplation, cheap jokes to priceless couplets, Nelson’s 50 year body of work is a discography of the human heart in all its contradictions.
And he still puts on a shit-kicking good time of a show.
But there were two opening acts before Willie and the family took the stage. The first was of the family: 40 Points, featuring sons Lucas and Micah, a kind of Santana-meets-Peal-Jam band, which is only half as bad as it sounds. Lucas’s voice bears an uncanny resemblance to his father, if his father were to suck on helium instead of spliffs all day. There’s virtually no resemblance on the songwriting front; Lucas exerts himself to poetic effect (lines about “weathered wine” and goddesses of wisdom fell in thuds), without a clue about shaping a song at all. The band’s cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” was a welcome relief, and Lucas’s guitar playing has some of his father’s vibrato-crazed flash, if little of his tone.
The wild card of the night was British R&B revivalist James Hunter, who was utterly unknown to this old-timer-dominated audience. Hunter comes on slick and groomed, a fast talker with a thick Colchester accent, a sharp dresser and soul hustler. But what a singer. He sounds like Charlie Rich and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and himself, growling and crooning and gliding through in-the-pocket strolls and stomps, from the opening “She’s Got a Way” (from his strong new record The Hard Way) to covers (two in fact) by the Five Royales. His band—stand up bass, drums, organ and baritone sax—has the swing and the blues that makes pre-rock & roll r&b such a singular, deceptively simple sound. But Hunter needs a club date in this town; the tepid response from a tolerant Fox audience won’t cut it.
Before he sang a note, Willie just stood in front of the simple stage-plot (grand piano, played by sister Bobbie), single snare drum, a bit of percussion, a couple of guitar and bass amps, and the wrecked relic of an acoustic guitar called Trigger) and received a standing ovation. He represents a way of life even his most leathery and hard-ridden fans can only dream about: a party that doesn’t end and doesn’t even have to be a party anymore. Everyone wants him to be good—and he is—but it’s barely necessary. Seeing Willie on-stage, a bit heavier at the mid-riff than his slight frame should allow, dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt, hair forever in down-the-back braids, is like being Willie. And you don’t have to invest in bio-diesel, gargle gallons of Jack Daniels or inhale an island’s worth of weed. You just have to known the songs and recognize the symbols. And with a giant Texas flag unfurled behind him, you couldn’t miss them.
The set started inevitably with “Whiskey River,” then “Still Is Still Moving,” then the stupid vigilante sing-a-long “Beer For My Horses.” It’s hard to believe that the writer of “Funny, How Time Slips Away” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” would pen such jingoism, let alone sing it with brio. But he did, and it’s part of the party. So much better was the “Crazy/Night Life” medley, which ended with a raunchy, weird, funny blues solo on Trigger. Nelson’s voice has always been an ugly-beautiful instrument, but his guitar playing has never been less than genius, and he hasn’t stopped thinking about new ways of never sounding like anyone but himself.
The rest of the greatest hits set was familiar and predictable: “Me and Paul,” “On the Road Again” and “Always On My Mind.” Only a silly cameo by son Lucas on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” broke the symbolic spell, not least because Lucas stepped all over Nelson’s brilliant, impossible to over-rate harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. As much as Trigger, Raphael’s harp, sometimes like an accordion, sometimes like a third guitar, gives the band its sound and soul.
Nelson has a new record out, A Moment of Forever, on Lost Highway, but like most classic country singers, he doesn’t tour behind or for an album. So it wasn’t until the one hour mark of the set that he did a few numbers from it, including the gorgeous, Kris Kristofferson-penned title track. He probably should have ended on that note of blue and pure feeling, but instead added a clumsy recent song “Superman” (about the absurdity of being Willie Nelson at age 75) and “A Peaceful Solution” which is sort of a pacifist version of “Beer For My Horses.” It’s sure to get an airing at an Obama rally near you soon. The final number, “I Saw the Light,” won’t; though he didn’t write it, the loose gospel performance, all clap-for-the-joy-of-it and harmonica freedom, is what Willie’s music is about—at 75 or any age.