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Review of concert from 2003-04-09: NYC, Beacon Theatre, guest appearance at Willie Nelson 70th birthday tribute - with Willie Nelson & Diana Krall
Billboard, 2003-04-10
- Barry A. Jeckell


Willie Nelson & Friends / April 9, 2003 / New York (Beacon Theatre)

It must be tough to make a live concert into a television special. There are all sorts of production requirements that are satisfied by starting and stopping an event while taping. And while the end result can look and sound seamless on the air, in person those delays can be painful as energy is sapped, spontaneity killed, and momentum halted, tainting what should be the show of a lifetime.

Such was the case at cable broadcaster USA Network's Willie Nelson & Friends event last night (April 9) at New York's Beacon Theatre. Normally, any concert with a lineup that promises Nelson joined by Eric Clapton, Lyle Lovett, Norah Jones, Paul Simon, Sheryl Crow, and Elvis Costello, among many others, would normally keep fawning attendees rapt. Unfortunately, this one saw seats emptying as hours wore on and more time was spent watching stagehands reset equipment than some fabulous musical moments sandwiched in between.

Some of those moments were undoubtedly well worth it, despite spotty in theater sound -- with attention undoubtedly paid to recording a superior mix from the soundboard for broadcast use. Chief among them was Clapton's effortless guitar playing and raspy vocal, which transcended those elements during a standout duet with Nelson on "Night Life" that was easily the night's highest peak.

Another highlight was the performance of "Crazy," a Nelson song made famous by the late Patsy Cline. Jazz stunner Diana Krall teamed up with Nelson and Costello to deliver a gorgeous rendition of the heartbreak tale, trading verses and joining together on the final chorus. Late in the show, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler delivered another collaboration worth waiting for, performing the first half of "Once Is Enough" with Nelson as slow country blues, then kicking it into hard driving rock gear, as the smiling birthday boy kept up the rhythm on his famously weathered six-string.

A pairing of Shelby Lynne and Lovett on "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away" was delightful, and Lynne's return on "There's an Angel Flyin' Too Close to the Ground" was truly special. Lovett's lead on Bob Wills' "San Antonio Girl" was made event better when accompanied by Nelson and unannounced guest Ray Price. Backed by sparse instrumentation, Nelson's Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp also turned out a fiery rendition of "I Could Not Believe."

But with the show's pacing dictated by setting and resetting equipment for various performance combinations -- the setup of ZZ Top's gear took more than 20 minutes for four minutes of the Texas boogie of "She Loves My Automobile" -- anticipation for each number waned. Many in Nelson's normally rowdy following grew restless, and the interminable waiting and a steady flow to and from the venue's busy bars led to sleepiness that eroded much of the audience by the time the show greeted its fourth hour.

Some performances landed far from their promise, such as a "Homeward Bound" duet between Nelson and Paul Simon. The song started shakily and a tentative Nelson, unsure of the song's phrasing, kept away from his microphone and ran lines together as he read from a teleprompter. Simon handled the situation like a pro, saving the first chorus and easing the elder country statesman through the verses, but it was not quite enough to rescue the song.

Kris Kristofferson's vocals weren't up to Sheryl Crow's zeal during an early run through "Me & Bobby McGee," and later tainted an otherwise enjoyable version of "Help Me Make It Through the Night" with Nelson as the gravely voiced performer struggled to stay on key.

The first time Ray Charles and Leon Russell ran through the latter's "A Song for You" with Nelson, he threatened to steal the show. His vocal and piano performance was gripping, his delivery passionate. The song had to be redone for reasons unknown, and while Russell's performance clearly benefited from the second take, Charles lost the moment. One can only hope that the best of both can be restored through clever editing for the television special.

Although Robert DeNiro flubbed his introduction of Jones, she and Nelson paid tribute to the late Waylon Jennings with a rendition of his "I Don't Want To Get Over You." Again, Nelson's uneasy vocals detracted from the duet as Jones shined in a spotlight meant for both. The same can be said for Nelson's collaborations with Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney.

But in cases where Nelson was more familiar with the material, such as on a run through current single "Beer for My Horses" with Toby Keith, he sang with strength, and the performance was that much better for it. A late in the show rendition of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" led by Russell had a similar vibe, reviving the audience and salvaging the show from yet more downtime.

While Wyclef Jean's reggae version of "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" was funny for all the wrong reasons, it did offer a point of levity for the restless crowd when, during a freestyle rap, he shouted, "Willie smokes more grass than Cheech & Chong!" Keith, who with a friend later performed the humorous ditty "I'll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again", picked up the theme again for the few hundred revelers who remained.

While introductions by Whoopi Goldberg, Ethan Hawke, and Ali McGraw were filled with praise of Nelson, it was former U.S. President Bill Clinton who stole this aspect of the event. Greeted by cheers from about 80% of the audience, Clinton said, "I'd like to thank the majority of you for that warm welcome." Joking that his detractors were "probably Republicans," he referred to the split opinion as indicative of Nelson's wide appeal. At least one less enamored attendee was ejected from the venue after he threw his beer towards the stage and angrily shouted as he tried to get closer to Clinton, who, never flustered, reflected on Nelson's talent, humanity, and generosity.

Nelson, who started the night off strong with "I Didn't Come Here and I Ain't Leavin'" (performed twice due to production issues), also finished the night off in similar fashion. After all duets with well-wishing celebs were through, the 15-piece house band was replaced by his usual backing group, who tore through "Whiskey River" and Hank Williams' "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," as Nelson summoned all of the remaining energy in the room. A guitar-shaped cake delivered by his "friends" and a sloppy run through "Happy Birthday" led into a giddy "On the Road Again" to end the show.

Standing at the edge of the stage signing autographs for about 15 minutes after the show, Nelson seemed to thoroughly enjoy his early birthday celebration (he turns 70 on April 30). And though exhausting and at times tedious in its live execution, it will probably come off as one helluva party when broadcast on the U.S. Memorial Day holiday (May 26).

Here is the "Willie Nelson & Friends" set list:

"I Didn't Come Here and I Ain't Leavin," Willie Nelson
"Me and Bobby McGee," Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow
"I Don't Want To Get Over You," Norah Jones and Nelson
"I Could Not Believe," John Mellencamp
"A Song for You," Ray Charles, Leon Russell, and Nelson
"Homeward Bound," Paul Simon and Nelson
"Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away," Lyle Lovett and Shelby Lynne
"Night Life," Eric Clapton and Nelson
"Beer for My Horses," Toby Keith and Nelson
"To All the Girls I Loved Before," Wyclef John and Nelson
"Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain," Shania Twain and Nelson
"Always," Twain and Nelson
"Crazy," Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, and Nelson
"She Loves My Automobile," ZZ Top and Nelson
"Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning," Kenny Chesney and Nelson
"Once Is Enough," Steven Tyler and Nelson
"There's An Angel Flyin' Too Close to the Ground," Lynne and Nelson
"Run That By Me One More Time," Ray Price and Nelson
"San Antonio Girl," Lyle Lovett, Price, and Nelson
"Nobody Can Make Me Do Wrong," Crow and Nelson
"Help Me Make It Through the Night," Kristofferson and Nelson
"I'll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again," Toby Keith and Nelson
"I Just Thought," Jones and Nelson
"Jumpin' Jack Flash," Russell and Nelson
"Whiskey River," Nelson
"Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," Nelson
"On the Road Again," Nelson and company

-- Barry A. Jeckell, N.Y.


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