by Jason Mitchell
TORONTO: He’s clad in his trademark red bandanna, black vest and beat up blue jeans. His beard is almost white now. And in his best running shoes, Willie Nelson still looks a little larger than life on stage.
Once an outlaw, the country version of Jessie James with pigtails, in 1985 the 52-year-old performer is something of a father figure, a keeper of country and westerner’s most cherished traditions.Â Nelson and company’s 3 1/2-hour-show at the CNE Grandstand Monday night, was an on-the-road-again version of the Willie Nelson annual Fourth of July picnic with nothing less than a guided tour through country music history.
Despite some of his recent forays into pop and jazz, this was a vintage country show that’s had a little for everyone, from the grandmas to the bikers. And if it lacked a little in the way of surprises, the smallish CNE Grandstand crowd didn’t seem to mind.
Jessi Colter, Waylon’s Jennings’ diminutive wife, once again had the job of opening the show. George Strait was supposed to do the honors, but the fine folks at immigration apparently had other ideas. And Colter provided equal to the task — displaying a convincing range in moving easily from throaty stomper to pretty ballad. By the time she got the motors revving, she had to turn the stage and the band over to Waylon.
Jennings was something of an enigma. He has always cultivated a brooding, even menacing sort of persona, but Monday night he seemed especially sombee, running through half a dozen songs without stopping or saying as much as hello. Perhaps he was just trying a little too hard to play his role, or perhaps he was just bored. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until half way through his set, when his wife returned to sing a couple of duets, that Jennings shook off his lethargy and showed some signs of life.
But it took Willie Nelson to bring the whole show together, and he did so effortlessly, offering a pleasant tour through country music history and a pretty generous overview of his own career in the process. In comparison to Jennings’ rather dark tones, Nelson was up form the first note.
While he showed some jazzy flourishes with the guitar, it is still his singing that makes him magic. His stop-start, talk-sing is a uniquely personal style and enables him, in some way, to get to the truth, the essence of any song he chooses to sing. His rendition of Always on My Mind was especially pretty.
Nelson’s musical tour wound its way from a gospelish version of the spiritual Amazing Grace and Fred Rose’s 1945 composition Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain, to Nightlife (a song he wrote in 1959 and sold the rights two years’ later for $150), On the Road Again and Good Hearted Woman. He sang just about every major song he had to offer, and covered all the bases from whoopers to ballads.
It was about as much as any fan could reasonably want, and a good example of why Nelson’s appeal transcends so many of the usual boundaries of country music.