Willie Nelson Publicity Photo

With Willie Nelson, Everyone Is Family

Pacific Coliseum - Vancouver, BC - June 29, 2007

First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Mon July 9, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT


Situated between a neglected waterfowl reserve and a half-built park on one side and a noisy midway on the other, Vancouverís Pacific Coliseum has seen better days. Once a busy hockey arena, Pacific Coliseum has played host to the biggest names in show business over the course of its long history. Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and countless other artists have performed here, and all of them have been defeated by the cavernous hallís famously poor acoustics. GM Place, the recently erected, acoustically superior venue across town, has become Willie Nelsonís new home. It, however, was booked, which forced his diehard followers to have to venture through the crumbling edifice of the Coliseum in order to hear the elder outlaw of county music on the last date of his Canadian tour.

From the beginning, it was a night that defied expectations. First, upon entering Pacific Coliseum to the music of opening act Shaye ó a roots-y folk outfit from Atlantic Canada ó it was apparent that the sound engineers had performed some kind of miracle. The acoustics of the bandís mandolin-, guitar-, and conga-driven music were crystal clear, and members of the audience seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief as they scrambled to find their seats. Inexplicably, the rough-and-tumble sports hall had been transformed into an intimate theater with near-perfect sound.

In itself, Shayeís set was very pleasant, if unremarkable. The groupís style is reminiscent of Be Good Tanyas as well as the countless other alt-country outfits who currently are trying to establish themselves on the concert circuit. What was noteworthy, however, about Shayeís set is that the group obviously had formed a bond with Nelson and his band. Nelsonís traveling entourage watched Shayeís performance from the wings of the stage, and occasionally its members picked instruments and joined the fun, clearly taking immense pleasure in having the opportunity to stretch out on some new material. As one musician left the stage, sometimes to attend to a waiting baby or mind a child who was dancing in the aisles, it became obvious that Willie Nelsonís ensemble is really an extension of his family. Vancouver may be a long way from Texas, but the ethos of Nelsonís unit clearly centers around staking a claim and making a home ó gypsy style ó wherever it finds itself on any given day.

Willie Nelson has been around for so long and his songs and performances are so embedded in pop musicís language that it is difficult to find anything new to say about him. He is not a restless innovator who constantly is caught in a battle to reinvent himself. He is not an aging celebrity in the mold of Paul McCartney, who has an insecure need to be loved and reassured that he still is relevant. Nelson is so obviously comfortable with himself and his place in life that he immediately puts his audience at ease. From the first song of the evening, the assembled crowd, wherever he may be, is open, excited, and ready to go with him down whatever paths he chooses to roam.

Itís not a jarring trip; the songs, like Nelson himself, are so deeply etched into the publicís collective consciousness that his concerts, though familiar, are still engaging and uplifting. The audience never gets the sense that the singer is pandering to them. Despite the fact that he has delivered them more than a million times before, Nelson has the uncanny ability to play his songs in a way keeps them fresh, alive, and real. A lot of credit for this goes to his backing band. The chemistry among the musicians was so natural that from the concertís beginning to its end not a single note or phrase was forced or wrong. Never has an oversized event felt so much like a back porch jam as it did on Friday at the Pacific Coliseum. All of Nelsonís musicians have been with him for at least 30 years, and itís obvious from their interplay that theyíre still having fun. Thereís just a certain magic that springs from Nelson, and it envelops everyone who comes near him. An evening with Nelson is more like spending time listening to the tales of an errant uncle who is visiting than it is like going to a rock concert. Itís hard to believe that he manages to create the same atmosphere night after night in different cities all over the world.

Nelson embodies a musical purity that few artists can ever hope to glimpse, much less sustain and build upon over the course of several decades. He transcends styles and genres to which the assembled Vancouver crowd ó ranging from young rockers to rednecks and from old hippies to jazz fans ó can attest. Although he has been performing a medley of Funny How Time Slips Away, Crazy, and Night Life for years, his solo segues between each song were innovative, daring, and complex. His love of improvising on chromatic scales and developing melodies within melodies makes it easy to see why Miles Davis was such an admirer of his talent.

More than anything else, Nelson has become a master of eloquent simplicity. Every note that he plays dances the razorís edge between suggestions of Django Reinhardtís gypsy sophistication and the rough strumming saloon guitar of his Texan roots. His sound is impossible to define, but what comes out of his punched in, shit-kicker guitar is music that is distilled to its purist, zen-like essence. It is perfect. There is never anything that needs to be added or taken away from what he plays. Nelson never over-emotes, yet he finds new, melodic nuances within every song. As a result, he remains capable of consistently uncovering the emotional heart in old chestnuts like Always on My Mind, Help Me Make It through the Night, and Angel Flying too Close to the Ground.

There was a sense last Friday night that Nelson realizes that time is real, which undoubtedly is the result of the fact that many of his contemporaries no longer are with us. As almost the last man standing amongst his peers, he took time out during his show to honor many of the greats of country music. He and his band climbed high into the tower of song and brought down tunes made famous by Merle Haggard (Workingmanís Blues), Waylon Jennings (Good Hearted Woman), and Kris Kristofferson (Me & Bobby McGee) ó the latter tune boasted a new, percussion-driven arrangement ó as well as his time-tested gospel and Hank Williams medleys. Never have Hey Good Looking or I Saw the Light sounded so good.

Being a family band, everyone was given a chance to spend time in the spotlight, and Nelson ó who was well suited to his role as the proud patriarch ó looked on, frequently tucking his tasty guitar accents into the mix. His younger sister Bobby Lee played a few numbers on a grand piano, which sounded like it was wrestled out of a frontier saloon. Though an inexpensive Casio probably would have fared better ó and been a lot easier to travel with ó the atonal clink of her Schroeder-at-Charlie-Brownís-Christmas keyboard is obviously part of the ensembleís musical alchemy. Several of Nelsonís offspring joined the entourage during the show, taking turns on bass and percussion, but it is Lucas, his youngest son who clearly is the most gifted one of the bunch. Playing a blues-y style of guitar that is reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan, he led the band through a scorching take of Texas Flood before playing several duets with his father. The proud look on the elder Nelsonís face said it all.

As the set wound down and Nelson launched into On the Road again for what must have been the 10,000th time, the truth of the lyrics came through. After 26 songs that had been spread over the course of more than two hours without a break, it became readily apparent that traveling and playing music with his friends is the most important thing in Nelsonís life. He long ago realized that this was precisely what he was born to do. While watching this 74-year-old force of nature unravel tune after tune, itís difficult to believe that he wonít be around forever. Although he is as grizzled and weathered as his guitar, Nelson seems absolutely eternal and frozen in time. Itís hard to imagine that a moment will come when he and his band of gypsies wonít be pulling into town to set up and play. As so many of his songs tell us, that day will come for him as it does for us all. For now, however, Nelson is slated to tour with no end in sight. Everyone ought to see him at least once. His show is a reminder of things forgotten, and it provides a beacon of light that has the power to heal this big, hectic, sprawling world. Isnít that what good music is supposed to accomplish?

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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
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