Willie Nelson,
Live at Billy Bob's Texas
(Smith, 2004)

This two-disc set is one of a series under the colophon Live at Billy Bob's Texas; this particular show was captured Oct. 30, 2003. The production on the disc is clean, both visually and aurally, and pretty straightforward in presentation, which matches well with the musical approach of the star of the piece, Willie Nelson.

Willie is backed by the Family Band: brothers Billy and Paul English handle the percussion load; the ever-present Jody Payne helps out on guitar and vocals; Mickey Raphael blows a mean harp; "Bee" Spears anchors the bass; and sister Bobbie Nelson covers the keyboards for frontman Willie, whose distinctive approach to both guitar and vocal styling is justifiably legendary. A word here before we begin: I know of almost nobody who is on the fence with regard to Willie Nelson. Folks either love the guy or can't abide him. Right up front, this disc will do nothing to convert the faithful, one way or another.

The set hits the ground running with an uptempo "Whiskey River," which folds seamlessly into "Stay All Night." The medley is completed by a swift and tight rendition of "Good-Hearted Woman." The second three-song medley marries "Funny How Time Slips Away" with a particularly stream-of-consciousness spoken version of "Crazy" and a relatively quieter "Night Life."

Bobbie Nelson's keyboards propel the instrumental "Down Yonder," and Payne takes a vocal turn on the old Merle Haggard standard "Workin' Man's Blues," giving way to a particularly strong read of "Help Me Make It Through the Night" featuring some exceptional guitar work by Nelson. The Kristofferson classic "Me & Bobby McGee" is given standard Willie treatment, and the perils of life on the road are explored in the painfully autobiographical "Me & Paul," documenting the early hell-raising of both the singer and the man on the snare drum, Paul English.

We then race through several tunes, including a strong harp performance by Raphael on "Blue Skies," and arrive at the centerpiece of the set, a soulful "Georgia on My Mind," which must have Ray Charles smiling somewhere. The obligatory "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" receives an enthusiastic reception, and is followed by an especially restrained read of the love ballad "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground." Keyboards return to the fore on "Always on My Mind," and "Seven Spanish Angels" suffers in comparison to the original (as other versions inevitably must).

The next several songs are merely the setup for a rousing three-song set embracing some newer material, including "Still is Still Movin' to Me" and the recent Toby Keith tune "Beer for My Horses" divided by a swing version of Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty." After raising the roof with that triad, the final song in the set is "The Great Divide," a rather elegiac reflection on life and love and loss. It is an interesting song for a closer, but then again, folks could easily go broke trying to predict the musical whims of Mr. Nelson.

This, then, is Willie Nelson Live at Billy Bob's Texas. The concert is a good one, and a strong addition to Willie's body of work. Watch it soon with an outlaw you love....

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 20 August 2005

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