Willie signs some fan autographs.
WILLIE NELSON AND FAMILY at Massey Hall, Thursday, June 20. Rating: NNN
It was the most casual, laid-back show I've ever seen at Massey Hall, never mind that it was country icon and 80-year-old living legend Willie Nelson and he was performing the first night of the Toronto Jazz Festival.
During her excellent (and very jazzy) opening set, Alex Pangman spoke of the intersection between country and jazz (she was a country singer before) and tried to gauge the audience's enthusiasm for the two genres. She got some response for jazz, and - not surprisingly - more for country.
But when Nelson hit the stage with his darkly lit Family band it became clear that genre doesn't matter - he's a brilliantly expressive guitarist, getting big, bluesy tones you wouldn't expect out of a little, beat-up-looking acoustic guitar, and he's also a distinctive, funny, and charming singer, with a mellow but strong voice that has aged almost as well as his guitar playing. His music is country, sure, but it's also blues and rock 'n' roll, mariachi and, yes, jazz.
At first, Nelson seemed to be rushing - he crammed Crazy into a medley with Funny How Time Slips Away and Night Life before thankfully dropping that format. He still didn't really slow down the pace, except when he or his sister Bobbie (also a remarkable, surprisingly youthful 80+ musician) took an extended turn on guitar or piano.
It's clear what he was doing, though: he managed to pack about two dozen songs into just over an hour and a half, playing a rocking rendition of Still Is Still Moving To Me, Waylon Jennings' Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys, On The Road Again (from Honeysuckle Rose), Always On My Mind (beautiful), Ray Charles' Georgia On My Mind and songs from his new album, Let's Face The Music And Dance.
The only real misstep was a gospel singalong finale, for which Nelson brought up a backup singer (I think it was his daughter Paula but band introductions were not Nelson's strong suit). It made the night feel like it was winding down more than coming to a strong finale; but luckily, Nelson, who had been pulling his trademark red bandanas off his head and throwing them into the audience throughout his set, knows how to work a crowd. He ended the show by walking out onto the seats and signing records, T-shirts, everything - including (hilariously appropriately) a cane.