Rock’s fling with country music is clearly over. Having never been to see Willie Nelson, surely the coolest country artist in the world, I had imagined throngs of twentysomethings queuing up to listen to his sweet melodies, husky tones and twangy, Mexican-influenced guitar playing.
But when I arrived at Wembley Arena’s garish door at 8pm there wasn’t a queue of any sort. The auditorium was already full of people listening politely. The only people who arrived later were three very merry ladies who seemed to know the band and got officially reprimanded for too much whooping and talking, and a family of Spanish bikers, who didn’t. The subject of the audience’s lukewarm response was the Sharon Shannon Band, an extremely talented bunch of musicians whose music mixes traditional Irish with New Orleans jazz and bluegrass.
The band itself were brilliant, their guests were, not to be unkind, pretty crap. I was soon heartily wishing I’d come earlier to hear more of the band. Damien Dempsey offered us a polemic about colonialism dedicated to Tony Benn while the aged and warbly Dizzy O’Halloran (replacing ailing ex-Dubliner Ronnie Drew who’s sadly too sick to perform) ended his interlude with a rendition of the Benny Hill chase music. Finally the uncomfortable-looking, velvet-smocked backing singer was revealed to be ex-Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader, who made a pigs ear of You’re Welcome Willie Stuart. The final medley (involving none of the guests) was sublime; I cannot fathom how row upon row sat there without so much as twitching while listening to it.
It took a while for them to warm up to Willie himself. A slight and now slightly podgy figure, with a big white spade beard, dressed in dusty black and trademark bandana, he and his band seemed somehow dwarfed by the large apron stage hung only with a Texas flag, huddled in a circle, watching each other; at times you could imagine you were listening to a jam session. Unfortunately it wasn’t a jam session by a very inspired group. Nelson often plays fast and loose with the rhythm of his songs, and this coupled with a disinterested drummer who appeared unable to keep time left the other musicians struggling. The drummer’s brother was on hand as percussionist, but thankfully seemed to spend more time looking for his instruments than playing them. Luckily Nelson seemed to be in particularly good form while taking solos, and had bought his sister, a fine honkytonk piano player, so it wasn’t all bad.
The first part of the set didn’t sparkle. With 2,500 plus songs to his name, Nelson must be very bored with some of his classics, but is savvy and gentlemanly enough to know that a lot of his fans want to hear Georgia On My Mind or Crazy yet again. As he jogged through the standards there was a sense of lassitude. He livened up a little on more recent numbers like Back to Earth, but the audience didn’t. Although the opening number, Whisky River, got toes tapping, going on to the new song Still Is Still Movin seemed to kill the nascent atmosphere, which didn’t really recover until the anthemic On The Road Again half way through the show. That one actually got the crowd dancing in the isles – well, a couple of dozen of them at least, until they were firmly ushered back to the seats by the omnipresent stewards.
It was only when Nelson began to sing other people’s songs that he seemed to revive, having a sprightly if not entirely driven go at Honky Tonkin’ and delivering a tender, cracked-voided duo of Kris Kristofferson‘s songs, Help Me Make It Through The Night and A Moment Of Forever. Although he doesn’t seem to be able to reach the higher ranges anymore, his voice – never huge – was sweet and true, especially when he let rip for a gospel melody including one of the nicest versions of May The Circle Be Unbroken that I’ve heard for a long time, and returned to Hank Williams for a series of upbeat numbers, On The Bayou, Hey Good Lookin’ and a particularly spirited Move It On Over.
Old school Willie Nelson fans know what they want, and Willie Nelson makes sure they get it. Me, I want those sweet, heartbreaking numbers from Teatro, the soft, old style country of To Lefty From Willie or Texas Swing songs from his excellent recent album of Cindy Williams covers. But I’m a Johnnie come lately, I haven’t turned out every year and grown old alongside him. And at least I’ve seen a living legend, even if he didn’t sparkle all the time.