Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams & The Jayhawks

Live Review - The Lost Highway Showcase at SXSW

Music Reviews Willie Nelson
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Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams & The Jayhawks

Austin Music Hall - Friday April 14, 2003

Call Willie Nelson what you will—and he’s been called a national treasure, the “King of the Road” and that old pot-smokin’ country singin’ hippie—he still has one of the purest voices in music today. And it would be a sin to underestimate the bright, beautiful tone he seems to draw effortlessly from his signature, beat-up, nylon-string classical guitar. Less than two months before his 70th birthday, Nelson hit the stage with his Family Band at 12:25 a.m. on the big night of the SXSW music conference in his home state of Texas, and for two hours he proceeded to play songs that unfolded the story of his career.

“Whiskey River,” now a brand of bourbon endorsed by Nelson, got things started, followed by “Stay a Little Longer,” which might have been a comment on the lateness of the hour, but the packed house only diminished slightly as the morning rolled on. It was a Friday night in Austin and Nelson’s set-list read like the back of his latest greatest hit record, The Essential Willie Nelson.

By the time Nelson got to “Good Hearted Woman,” the band—made up of seaoned musicians who still play over 200 shows a year—was loose and playful. Nelson traded guitar solos with Jody Payne, while his 72-year-old sister Bobbie limbered up on the piano keys and Mickey Raphael blew sweet and low down on harmonica.

The musical context, of course, is country. Always was, always will be. Yet Nelson, along with a few of his outlaw, highwayman friends, has come to define country music’s ties to the past and link to the future, attracting old school listeners, modern jam rock fans and hippies. At times churning out a bit of the Grateful Dead’s everyperson’s rock, Nelson’s melodic ease and the way he led his band from one classic to the next had more in common with the improvisational spirit of jazz than any other tradition.

“Funny How Time Slips Away” led to “Crazy,” followed by a bluesy turn on “Night Life” that sparked lively dancing around the edges of the venue as the band soloed all around. Payne stepped to the mic to sing “Workin’ Man Blues,” dedicated to Merle Haggard, followed by two from Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “Me & Bobby McGee.”

“Me and Paul” is classic Willie, mixing first-person narrative with social commentary, always from a rebel outcast’s point of view. Always entertaining, often comical, he threw “Branson” into the lyric on the last verse, where he usually disses Nashville.

“If You Got the Money,” still brought gigolo smiles, while “Blue Skies” meandered through a variety of musical styles, from classical to blues to jazz and back. Then, another string of big hits: “Georgia on My Mind,” “All of Me,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “On the Road Again,” and “You Were Always on My Mind.” Each played as if to remind us that besides that lovely voice and these delightful sounds, at the heart of it all, Willie Nelson has written some great songs, too.

Turning to some tunes from the Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro, which was the only newer material played during the show, Nelson led his band through a Latin, Tex-Mex flavored instrumental before sliding into “I Never Cared for You.” A trio of familiar songs returned us full circle to the beginning, “City of New Orleans,” “All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and then a reprise of “Whiskey River,” which, given the hour, would have wrapped up the evening nicely.

With Willie though, as it sometimes is in life, what comes around may go around—but that doesn't mean it’s over. Joined by Ben Harper on Weissenborn acoustic lap-slide guitar, Nelson continued on, switching to electric guitar for “Milk Cow Blues” and a jam that seemed to pull up short, almost abruptly.

After dedicating “Pancho and Lefty” to writer Townes Van Zandt, Nelson closed things up at 2:20 a.m. with three from Hank Williams, “On the Bayou,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over,” which gave the band a chance to rock out at the end. And, not a minute too soon.

Of course, there had to be a reason for Willie’s late start, and that dubious credit goes to Lucinda Williams, who over-shot her 40-minute SXSW slot by twenty minutes. And she would have kept right on playing if the stage manager hadn’t stopped her as she was beginning another song.

Still, in spite of that inauspicious ending, much of William’s set highlighted the strong music of her new release, World Without Tears. She opened with “Drunken Angel” from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and the music that followed captured the sweet sadness of life and love unrequited. There was country pedal steel one minute, and tight, Stonesy blues-rock the next. Several times, during “American Dream” and “Sweet Side,” she mixed Dylanesque talking blues with rhymes reminiscent of modern hip-hop.

Attempting to step out and present her music more forcefully, Williams tried singing a few songs without a guitar, but it was almost painful watching her so ill at ease, not knowing quite what to do with her hands. But when she broke into the soulful title track from her new album, Williams the singer/songwriter shined for a golden moment. Any negative thoughts about her performance and the fact that her set had run long were transcended by her music, her voice and this song of heart and depth.

The Jayhawks used their SXSW showcase to celebrate transitions in the band and introduce new material from the then soon-to-be released Rainy Day Music. It’s always going to be hard for those of us who loved the combination of Mark Olson and Gary Louris to get over our hunger for those harmonies, but the Jayhawks are Louris’ baby now, and the best place to hear a great vocal blend on the group's classic, “Blue,” is when The Thorns cover it. Regardless, there is a lot this band still does very well. Earthy country pop rock, smart, melancholy lyrics, heart-tugging melodies that stay with you, crisp guitars that are as likely to weep as wail—this is the sound of songs like "One Man's Problem" and "Tailspin." It makes one glad that a band can evolve, survive and come out the other side better for the changes.