Willie Nelson / Damnations – Stubb’s (Austin, TX)
The atmosphere was something like a homecoming as Willie Nelson kicked off the first show of a rare two-night Austin club engagement. Aging hippies rubbed elbows with latter-day punk rockers, frat boys gathered with geezers. Like precious few recording artists these days, Willie’s magnetism cuts wide swaths across age, gender, style, and political persuasion.
By the time Nelson finally took the stage, the sold-out crowd was poised to erupt to the opening salvo of “Whiskey River”. That song, Willie’s call to arms, opened the floodgates on a remarkable repertoire of greatest hits: the celebratory “Stay A Little Longer”, a bouncy “Good Hearted Woman”, a mournful, blues-tinged “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away”, and dozens of others. By the time he got around to “Crazy”, everyone, musicians and fans alike, was suitably warmed up.
Nelson’s veteran road-tested eight-piece band is a loose, rambling aggregation, less interested in by-the-numbers groove and technique than in simply finding the right mood, feel and rhythm of each song. Sister Bobbie Nelson’s bluesy roadhouse piano nestles into the sound, bringing texture and chemistry, almost imperceptibly. Guitarist Jody Payne adds a few jazzy underpinnings here and there, and takes a few lead vocals. Harmonica player Mickey Raphael is more of a focal point, often lifting the proceedings into a new stratosphere with inspired, creative and sympathetic leads and fills around Nelson’s vocals.
“Crazy” segues seamlessly into “Night Life”, easily one of Nelson’s most enduring songs. Upon reaching the line “Listen to what the blues are saying”, Nelson coaxes a barrage of explosive new tones out of his ancient, battered semi-acoustic guitar. It’s an emblematic moment, showcasing his jagged, idiosyncratic lead guitar playing at its expressive best. His seemingly effortless style is revelatory throughout; though often overshadowed by his songwriting, his musicianship is an underrated element of his arsenal.
By midset, Nelson has expanded his reach to take in all those writers in his extended “family.” Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “Me And Bobby McGee” get spirited workouts, and there’s a ragged but jubilant version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On A Fast Train”. A sturdy resurrection of Steve Goodman’s “City Of New Orleans” has legions singing along. It’s all Willie’s music: Like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, or Aretha Franklin, Nelson is able to make any song into his own, whether it comes from his own pen, the heart of Tin Pan Alley, or the most irascible Texas songwriter.
It could be argued that Nelson’s live show is mere nostalgia, an unchallenging series of hits played for adoring fans expecting to hear them. And that’s partly true. He’d sooner cozy up to the current corporate Nashville establishment than disappoint his fans, and so most every significant bit of Nelson’s chart history and commercial success surfaces onstage. He runs through truncated verse/chorus renditions of classics such as “All Of Me” (from Stardust) and “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”, blurring one song into another (Willie loves medleys), always working the crowd with smiles, winks, and the occasional souvenir hat.
But, if you pay attention to the pacing, the sequencing, and which songs receive Nelson’s particular intensity on any given night, you’ll find he’s sly as a fox. Tonight, the more epic numbers — “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”, “Pancho & Lefty”, “Seven Spanish Angels” — are stacked toward the end and given sharply drawn readings, Nelson earnestly dedicating himself to their drama and atmospheric grace. The band’s subtle handling of those three (plus a sublime “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”) made for the night’s most transcendent moments.
Damnations TX, shaking off some rust after only sporadic stagework of late, opened the show with a set that was half garage-band thump and half backwoods harmonies. Joking that the band was recently spotted reclaiming all their gear from the local pawnshop, singer Deborah Kelly preferred not to directly address the band’s current limbo (with an album for Sire in the can but their record deal reportedly gone south), saying they’ve all been busy with day jobs.
On this night, the band stuck to its fine, if old, Half Mad Moon repertoire, guns-a-blazing on the clang of “Most Unholy Train” and “The Things I Once Adored”. The set’s second half found Rob Bernard grabbing his banjo for some mutant mountain music on “Spit And Tears” and “Kansas”. A surprise cover of Doug Sahm’s “I Wanna Be Your Momma Again”, part of a series of songs played to kill time until Willie was ready, put an apropos Lone Star stamp on the evening.