Still on the Road: Willie Nelson and Family at Pier Six Concert Pavilion, July 25
Willie Nelson played just one song from his terrific new album for Rounder Records, Country Music, in his 32-song concert at Pier Six Sunday night, but “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was delivered in a moody, drummer-less arrangement that reflected T-Bone Burnett’s production on the album. And the album’s theme of revisiting and reinterpreting songs from country music’s past was reflected throughout the evening.
As he has at almost every show for 25 years, Nelson sang songs such as Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind,” but he also added such surprises as Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Boy” and a trilogy of Hank Williams songs. Nelson attacked each number with a strange mixture of genuine affection and reckless irreverence, reshaping the melody as if he were a jazz singer and guitarist.
Which he is. It is seldom remarked that Nelson is one of the most inventive guitarists in American music, altering time and tune with fast phrases and forceful chops on an acoustic guitar so worn that it bears a gaping hole where his pick has repeatedly scraped the wood. He enjoys the perfect foil in harmonica virtuoso Mickey Raphael and on Sunday the two men filled Nelson’s classic composition “Night Life” with dizzying solos that left enough of the familiar song to satisfy the audience but changed it enough to keep the band interested after playing it several thousand times.
Nelson is as important a songwriter as he is an interpreter, of course, and he sang not only such familiar originals as “On the Road” and “Good-Hearted Woman,” but also such relative rarities as “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” “Superman,” and “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore.” He was at his best on ballads such as “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Healing Hands of Time,” where he could take advantage of his elastic tenor and reharmonizing guitar.
Nelson’s longtime drummer, the ailing Paul English, sat behind a single snare drum for the song Nelson wrote about him, “Me and Paul,” and for the trilogy of Nelson’s earliest songwriting triumphs: “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away” (a hit for Billy Walker), “Crazy” (for Patsy Cline), and “Night Life” (for Ray Price). Otherwise the drumming duties were handled by Paul’s kid brother Billy. Joining Nelson, the English brothers, and Raphael were bassist Bee Spears and Willie’s son Lukas, who played electric rhythm guitar and opened the show with his own quartet, an undistinguished blues-rock bar band.