Billy Joe Shaver / Willie Nelson – Tramps (New York City, NY)
When you get the chance to see a genuine honky-tonk hero like Willie Nelson at a genuine honky-tonk (or at least what passes for one in Manhattan), you run. When you get a chance to see two genuine honky-tonk heroes — fellow Texas songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver opening the show — you run fast. Real fast.
Looking fit, even spry, for a 64-year-old who has done way more than his share of hard living, Nelson led a small lineup from the Nelson Family ensemble (longtime cohorts Jody Payne on guitar, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and sister Bobbie Nelson on piano) in an extended version of the well-honed show he’s performed thousands of times at arenas, stadiums and county fairs across the country. Despite his status as a big-shot show-biz personality, Nelson refuses to phone it in. This was no abbreviated, slapdash greatest-hits package, but a long-winding journey through the heart of American song, which impressed more and more as the evening wore on.
Beginning, as he has for years and years, with “Whiskey River” and “Good Hearted Woman”, Nelson calmly, almost serenely, rolled through nearly all his signature tunes and some well-chosen covers. There were the cowboy songs, the road songs, the good-time drinkin’ songs, the spirituals, the Kristofferson songs, the old pop standards, even a short reggae set, and plenty of sad songs about love gone wrong. But they all sounded like Willie Nelson tunes: wistful, melancholy, honest, and completely without pretense. His voice, like his guitar playing, remains totally distinctive and immediately recognizable. If some of the tunes began to sound a little alike after a while, well, no matter. If you’d written hundreds of great songs like Nelson, you might end up repeating a few melodies here and there, too.
A surprisingly laconic performer, Nelson usually segues wordlessly from song to song. About two hours into the show, after a rousing gospel set of “Amazing Grace”, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “Uncloudy Day”, he told the crowd, “This is the point in the evening when everyone always thinks we’re finished. And we never are.” I was pretty exhausted by then, but Willie wasn’t. He proceeded to play for another half-hour, introducing some fine new tunes from his recent release Spirit, before closing with moving versions of Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho And Lefty”. Then it was back on the bus (actually two buses) and out on the road again.
Billy Joe Shaver, who really was raised in a honky-tonk (his mother owned the Green Gables nightclub in Waco, Texas), is every bit as grizzled and weathered as Nelson. Which is saying something. He’s also written some pretty fair country songs of his own — “Tramp On Your Street”, “Georgia On A Fast Train”, “Honky Tonk Heroes” — that stand up next to anybody’s, including Nelson’s. Joined by his son, guitar ace Eddy, Shaver sang with enormous energy and animation in his brief opening set. Like Nelson, who has a small role as a legendary country songwriter (go figure) in “Wag The Dog”, Shaver has caught the acting bug lately, appearing as Robert Duvall’s valet in The Apostle. As he exited the stage to a nice ovation, he gave us heathen New Yorkers a message from the other America: “If you don’t love Jesus Christ, you can go to hell.”