Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Willie at the Clay

Willie Nelson
Tuesday, Sep 30 7:30p
at Clay Center Charleston, WV

Malcontents (I've been called the same) bitch all the time about Charleston's lack of concerts. Seriously, we need to get off our hipper-than-thou attitudes and appreciate what we do have. Last night, I saw Willie and Jakob Dylan and paid nada for parking, literally walking less than a block from the venue. We will never ever be the nightmarish hassle of those big city concerts and thank God for it.

The Clay Center was packed to the rafters. It was a curious mix of professional types and Willie wannabes: silver haired ponytail types with biker-denim-outlaw casual wear. On the whole, this was an older crowd. One story: A girl with a mega bosom bumped into my wife and to her amusement, the twenty-something apologized, "We are so sorry" - pointing at her breasts. A+ for creativity.

Jakob Dylan opened and was very underwhelming. My wife said, "You were expecting him to be." Maybe so. This is the stuff college radio is made for: boring, predictable and bland. There were two songs that I found enjoyable, but his voice was buried in the mix (a common theme there for some reason) and what lyrics I could decipher were cliches. He has found his own identity from the seemingly insurmountable task of coming out from shadow of his father, but the depth is not there. At least not for me.

Dylan had a very relaxed stage presence, speaking very little except to remind us that it "was great to be back." Really? We feel so special. Dylan's acoustic guitar work was more interesting than his singing, but was even more buried in the mix. That was a shame because he was doing some creative things with retuning.

His guitar player was quite good. His style reminded me of Albert Lee and Mark Knofler. His playing was very subtle at times, creating musical lines and fills that went perfectly with the harmony-not a common thing among players. His sound was a bit biting and on the treble side for me, but you have to consider the source. He eschewed the rock star persona and played. That was appreciated. He kept switching back and forth between three instruments. I find that annoying and pretentious on some level. What can't you get out of one instrument? For a 40 minute set, do you have to switch to the Les Paul just to rock out on one song?

The drummer's (who resembled Rasputin), setup was pared down to the basics. He might have had five pieces. Good grooves that never too busy, but he was too loud in the mix. This didn't help Jakob Dylan's soft voice in the mix at all. Ditto for the bass player-economical and solid, but too loud.

I found myself drifting a bit during their short set. That's bad. Maybe I'm too old. A couple of girls screamed during his brief patter. Without a doubt, this is part of the appeal. At least he's not John Mayer. On that one, I am clueless.

Willie took the stage unceremoniously, opening with "Whisky River." At 75, he's still got all the charm, charisma and that don't-give-a-damn attitude that makes Willie so enjoyable and ultimately lovable.

Nelson looks he's just as comfortable on the world's stages as he would be at a bar or among friends backstage. He has no cocky celebrity vibe even after all these years. He's just a rowdy boy from Texas.

The big hits were there including the lessor known "Me and Paul." - an ode to drummer Paul English who took the prize for most pared down musician of the evening-only a snare. That's all you need if you can play. In light of certain local events, we burst out laughing at "Almost busted in Laredo, but for reasons that I'd rather not disclose."

Then there's that damn guitar of his (I should talk). Trigger has a rather conspicuous hole right next to the bridge, no doubt due to the rather forceful down stroke style of playing. I have to admit that either I have missed how well Willie has been playing the guitar over the years or the man is getting better. Every TV appearance I have seen, his playing was always a little rough and often he seemed like a lack of technical skill would often limit what ideas he was trying to get out of the instrument, but my opinion has changed. Willie still clobbers the beast, but his melodic and harmonic ideas were wonderful; revealing an understanding of harmony that's rare among players with greater technical ability. That's what counts, baby: hearing it.

Nelson is not really a true rhythm player, but rather uses it to constantly do little fills, bass lines and leads. Sometimes that seemed to occupy so much of his attention that the vocals were an afterthought.

The rest of the band reflected complete and professional support to one aim: back up the man. It was a very sparse lineup with an equally simple equipment setup. The atmosphere onstage was professional, but totally casual. At one point, drummers switched places and even one took over bass duties for a song.

The auxiliary percussion guy added nothing significant. He even added bongos to "On the Road Again." Bongos? Willie Nelson? Hummmmm.

One of my colleagues said that he was expecting a larger band and cited no lead or steel guitarists to be found. I agree that a steel player would have been nice, but with each added band member the musical space becomes fuller and more cluttered. Willie would have had to adjust his style of playing.

Musicians talk about "behind", "on" and "ahead" of the beat. It's hard to explain in words, but suffice it to say that the drummer, Paul English, most likely is used to and ignores Nelson's offbeat (way behind) sense of time. Nelson is never on the beat in any way, especially his voice, which wanders on its own. This is not a criticism, but a very strong observable fact. Nelson's guitar playing reflects this same liquid sense of the beat, but surprisingly
not nearly as much as his voice. Curious. Perhaps it's the percussive nature of the guitar.

One of my colleagues told me his girlfriend told him regarding the drummer, "That man is getting on my nerves." Even non musicians felt this intuitively.

Then there is Willie's voice. How does someone who sings almost like he's speaking communicate such intimacy and sincerity? That can never be answered in Nelson's case. How does he pull off "Georgia" after Ray Charles? Don't ask me, but it sure works.

Frankly, I'm going to take off my malcontent's shield and tell the truth: many times I was completely swept up by the whole magnetism of this man and his wonderful music. He is an American icon, an unlikely survivor, still untouched by the star machinery, representing that Martha Grahamism "salty and original." A great show.

The merch booth had T-shirts for $40. We all agreed that that price was a bit steep. Perhaps the tax man stills haunts the Texan legend.

Word was that as soon as the gig was over, the man was on the bus. No doubt off to another city. Another among countless other gigs.

The road is a terrible place they say, but somehow Nelson has survived with his mind "still fairly sound", but more importantly, his soul still intact.

1 comment:

primalscreamx said...

Fuck Jakob Dylan. He hasn't impressed me since The Wallflowers broke through with "Bringing Down The Horse." He wants to call up his father's early electric period, but he's just not that guy. I think my generation wanted him to be the face who was the "Dylan" for the grunge era, but we didn't get one --unless you give it by default to Eddie Vedder and/or Chris Cornell.
I got no love for him because he shot me down twice for an interview. Fair is fair. I have an ax to grind. I don't like getting turned down by guys who'd be circling the drain and opening for Blind Melon at the Monkey Bar if not for their famous father's name.