Monday, January 2, 2017

Willie Nelson: Library of Congress Gershwin Songwriters’ Prize, 2015

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards KPBS presented an hour and a half of quite a different sort of music: the 2015 Library of Congress George and Ira Gershwin songwriting prize concert for Willie Nelson. This seems to have been delayed longer than usual — the 2014 concert, honoring Billy Joel, was aired January 2, 2015 — and was engaging but also odd in that, though all the songs on the program had been recorded by Willie Nelson, quite a few of them weren’t written by him, and it was supposedly his talents as songwriter rather than singer that were being honored. The opener, by Neil Young with the band Promise of the Real (led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, whom I’d seen previously on an episode of the local music show Live at the Belly Up, and which backed Young on his album The Monsanto Years and the tour he did to support it), was “Dance All Night (Stay a Little Longer),” a New Orleans zydeco tune Willie Nelson did on the first episode of Austin City Limits but which was recorded by New Orleanian Boozoo Chavis in the 1960’s — at least that’s how the local zydeco group the Bayou Brothers introduced it, though another Wikipedia entry credits it even earlier than that and says the composers were Bob Wills (an influence Willie Nelson has acknowledged) and Tommy Duncan. The next song, by Leon Bridges, was at least authentic Willie Nelson — “Funny How Time Slips Away,” a typically bittersweet Nelson love song written during his long tenure as a Nashville songwriter in which he was able to place mega-hits with other artists (including “Crazy” for Patsy Cline) but not so good at getting his own career going. (“Funny How Time Slips Away” was originally introduced in the 1960’s by country singer Billy Walker.)

There were a few of the hideous mismatches between singer and material that mar shows like this — “Crazy” was given to Latin American singer Raol Malo (I think I’ve got his name right), who made it too openly intense and emotional (the essence of both Nelson’s and Cline’s versions is their restraint, their unwillingness to “milk it” and make it too openly emotional) and later a mediocre singer named Jamie Johnson was not only assigned “Georgia on My Mind” (not by Nelson, of course, but by Hoagy Carmichael, and included here as representative of the three standards albums Nelson recorded in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, which were huge sellers and helped revitalize interest in the Great American Songbook) but duetted with Alison Krauss on “Seven Spanish Angels,” the song Nelson recorded as a duet with Ray Charles (though he didn’t write that one, either: Wikipedia lists it as the work of Troy Seals and Eddie Setser), and not surprisingly Krauss blew him off the stage even though she was handicapped by the decision of the show’s producers to use her only as a singer and not an instrumentalist. (She also did a beautiful solo vocal on “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” an actual Willie Nelson composition.) Charles and I were amused when the performance of “Remember Me” (actually a traditional folk song Nelson adapted and included on his breakthrough album Red-Headed Stranger) was credited to Paul Simon and “special guest star Edie Brickell” (Edie Brickell happens to be the current Mrs. Paul Simon, though I quite liked the way their voices blended — reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel!) and Rosanne Cash did a too-slow but otherwise nice version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” (oddly featuring pedal steel guitar, an instrument Cash’s father Johnny never used in his bands). One of Nelson’s greatest career frustrations was his inability to get a duets album recorded with Van Zandt; he got the terminally ill Van Zandt into a studio long enough to record his contributions but couldn’t find backers for the project to add other voices later. In the later stages of the show Neil Young and Promise of the Real returned with “Whiskey River” and Paul Simon came back with a group called Buckwheat Zydeco for a really obscure Nelson song, “Man with the Blues” (I stumbled on Nelson’s version on one of those ultra-cheap 99¢ LP’s in which a company would grab a couple of songs by an acknowledged star — in this case Jim Reeves — and fill it out with usually inferior stuff by other people, but Willie Nelson’s name zinged out at me from the cover and “Man with the Blues” turned out to be one of his most beautiful songs), which would have been good except for a wretched sound mix: Buckwheat Zydeco’s accordion player almost totally drowned out Simon’s vocal!

Then it was time for Willie Nelson himself to take the stage, which he did with his early song “Night Life,” then George Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” as a duet with Cyndi Lauper (Nelson and Lauper aren’t exactly the first people who come to mind for a cover version of a song written for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but it would have worked if Lauper had sung in her normal voice instead of her bizarre attempt to modernize Betty Boop), and then Nelson brought up his sons Lukas and Micah for “Living in the Promised Land” — a quasi-patriotic, quasi-progressive song he said was particularly appropriate given the political mood of the country just now (and it’s even more appropriate 18 days before the replacement of America with TrumpAmerica than it was a year and a half ago!) — and the entire cast came up for one of Nelson’s most iconic, but also weakest, songs, “On the Road Again.” (Willie Nelson is a great songwriter when he’s dealing with broken relationships and emotional turmoil; he’s considerably less interesting when he’s writing about other things and especially flat when he tries to write about a life or a relationship that’s working well.) I was disappointed that there was nothing from Nelson’s greatest album, Phases and Stages — a vivid masterpiece about a busted relationship, with one LP side told from the woman’s perspective and the other from the man’s — he made it just before Red-Headed Stranger but he recorded it for Atlantic, which closed down their country division just before it was released and didn’t promote it; fortunately he landed at Columbia and made Red-Headed Stranger, which had the enormous crossover success Phases and Stages had deserved. Other than that, it was a good tribute even though it did seem odd that in a show ostensibly paying tribute to Nelson the songwriter rather than Nelson the singer, so many of the featured songs were pieces Nelson didn’t write!