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Waylon Jennings

Live! at the US Festival

(Shout Factory; US: 28 Feb 2012; UK: 28 Feb 2012)

cover art

Willie Nelson

Live! at the US Festival

(Shout Factory; US: 28 Feb 2012; UK: 28 Feb 2012)

Willie and Waylon and Wozniak

The US Festivals occurred at a strange time both in American life and in the history of rock festivals. The events took place during the early eighties when Ronald Reagan was in his first term as President and the country was recovering from a major economic recession. Despite the media attention (Does anybody else remember Sting giving newsman Ted Koppel a spontaneous kiss on the lips during “Nightline”>), host Apple Computer mogul Steve Wozniak lost tens of millions of dollars sponsoring a wide diversity of talented and popular artists such as the Grateful Dead, the Talking Heads, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, the Pretenders, the Police and many others at a newly created amphitheatre in the desert. Many people blamed the heat for the failure of the fests to attract more of a live audience.


The US Festivals took place during the post-Woodstock/Altamont and pre-Live Aid years, when rock festivals were equated with hippie values and squalid sanitary conditions. Country music, which was considered the antithesis of rock during the ‘60s (think of Joan Baez at Woodstock singing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”) had become linked with rock in the ‘70s (The Eagles, Lynryd Skynyrd, and others were among the decade’s most popular acts). Therefore, the fact that Wozniak scheduled a Country Day in addition to a Heavy Metal, New Wave and Rock Day, was not a surprise. The Country Day line up included Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, and Hank Williams Jr. in addition to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. The Shout Factory label has just released live CDs and DVDs of Waylon’s and Willie’s performances more than 25 years after the original shows.


Waylon performed first on the bill. The one thing about Waylon is that he makes every tune he sings sound like it was written by him, even when this is not the case. He has a distinctive style that can turn everything from Little Richard’s “Lucille (You Won’t Do Your Daddy’s Will)” to Mel Tillis’ “Sweet Mental Revenge” into a Waylon song. Waylon performs these, and twenty other cuts in a manner that shows off his distinctive approach to music. It’s sort of like a Mack truck that flattens everything in its way, but because it does so with power and grace one is awed rather than scared. However, it does make similar sounding material seem the same. How different are songs like “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” anyway? The instrumentations and vocal inflections greatly resemble each other.


The biggest problem with this disc is that Waylon seems to be tired. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe he was partying too hard the night before. Who knows? While Waylon is enough of a professional to perform the set without faltering, he never really gets charged up. The intensity of his singing never changes. He blurs the differences between the songs by never altering his style, even when he is joined onstage by his wife Jessi Colter for her composition “Storms Never Last”. While Waylon fans would be happy hearing the man canter through some of his best-known material such as Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” “Only Daddy That’ll Walk That Line,” and “Honky Tonk Heroes,” there are no revelations or outstanding moments here.


While all the songs blend together on Waylon’s set, Willie’s never been afraid of singing the same song twice in a set. His concerts are usually like one giant medley anyway where he rarely takes a break between tunes but just rushes right into the next one. Waylon and Willie were a popular duo during this time period, so it’s not surprising the Willie invites Waylon to perform with him during his set. The first time, Waylon doesn’t show up, so Willie sings “Good Hearted Woman” by himself. Waylon had sung it solo earlier. Then Waylon does show up, so the two sing “Good Hearted Woman” for a third time (along with “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”). Again, Waylon seems tired, especially compared with Willie’s vigorous performance. Waylon’s voice is somewhat flat and scratchy compared with his compadre.


Willie’s 23-song set shows the Texas Outlaw in fine form. He weaves standards such as “Stardust” and “Blue Skies”, self-penned classics such as “Crazy” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, and other wonderful songs by such luminaries as Lefty Frizzell, Mickey Newbury, and Tommy Duncan together into a tight program that varies in tone and tempo according to the material. While Willie is almost five years older than Waylon and 50 years old at the time of this recording, he sounds like a young kid. He whips through cuts like “Bloody Mary Morning” as if it’s a rockabilly barn burner. Even when Willie slows down on tracks like “Georgia On My Mind”, his voice brightly conveys the contentment celebrated in the lyrics.


Waylon’s been dead for 10 years now. Hoss should still be remembered for all the marvelous music he created and performed. He’s left a solid chunk of country music that serves as a monument to his talents. This disc does nothing to enhance or detract from this. Willie will soon be 79-years-old. He’s still releasing great albums and giving concerts. This live recording is just one of many that reveal he may be one of country music’s greatest artists. Maybe the disc is not essential listening, but it sure is a hell of a good time to hear.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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