Based on a preservationist instinct that is also highly corporate, Houston’s House of Blues is an ideal venue to gauge whether or not Willie Nelson has outlived the counterculture that he emblematizes. While many lament the current scourge of sales- and fame-oriented American Idols, tonight it is the venue that is suspect, for tonight’s show features valet parking and thirty dollar steaks long before it features Willie Nelson.
If one hates capitalism’s effect on the arts, you had better turn off your inner critic when entering the House of Blues. Preservation by infomercial is the norm. The four bar TVs show clips of a ‘60s era Freddie King until the clips give way to a tag promoting the DVD of King and other blues travelers past. The concert hall’s mini jumbotrons show video blurbs for Blur’s greatest hits, Sum 41 concert footage, and promos for House of Blue’s Sunday Morning Gospel Breakfast, which includes a stage show and all-you-can-eat authentic Southern Style Breakfast. Yes, history and culture are commodity and merchandise here, and the House of Blues loves peddling the past. A cynic would wisecrack that the marketing staff’s concern over authenticity is enough to give Frederic Jameson an orgasm. Yet a preservationist would understand and forgive the House of Blues for being more market-driven than a flatbed stage plopped at one end of a county fair racetrack.
But the judgment falls upon not the House of Blues as much as the performers and crowds that fill and define it. When 8:30 pm rolls in, Mary McBride takes the stage to a knowing applause. She is not a stranger to the gathering crowd. With only a guitar player and a keyboardist alongside her, the unplugged setting allows McBride’s strong and inflected voice to take center stage. McBride plays a mix of older and unreleased songs. Her voice fills the medium-sized venue. I can see from the balcony that those on the floor are fully invested in her performance. Ironically, the jumbotron advertisements don’t switch to performance cameras until her third song, and McBride begins her set sandwiched between House of Blues infomercials. Both the cynic and the preservationist take note, but McBride’s audience remains rapt and unbothered.
If McBride suffers problems, it is mainly because she is opening for Willie Nelson. Her band—tight, energetic, and professional—are the antithesis of Willie Nelson. Not that Willie Nelson lacks these qualities, but one gets the feeling that McBride and company know exactly where every song or lick is headed long before they get there. Later, when Willie scratches out lead breaks, you’re not sure of where the journey stopped or if you even got there. If the listener is concerned, Willie is not. When he rasps his own lyrics, sung a thousand times, a feeling of virgin performance still exists. Watching Willie, you realize that you can’t imagine McBride’s band playing a wrong note or chancing to. They are stylists of a well and often spoken language, and tonight’s dissonance will be of the clean, historically sanctified kind. Later, as an energetic Willie randomly calls on band members to solo, then smacks out his slapdash country flamenco arpeggios that end suddenly mid-phrase, you realize the difference between legend and preservation, between innovation and culmination. It isn’t just smoking pot before a show or playing off-key notes never to be found in a how-to-play-country-guitar lesson book that are innovative, but they are somehow of the same spirit. It is the orchestrating of choices others don’t see or don’t attempt that make the Willie Nelsons of the world. While McBride and her band sound great, their set will later seem more the theoretical example or lecture on blues and country to prepare you for the live laboratory experiments of Willie Nelson.
With a giant lone star flag as backdrop, Willie is to kick off the show promptly at 10:00 pm. The crowd is so excited that they accidentally cheer for a longhaired, cowboy-hatted guitar tech that strolls onstage five minutes before the anointed time. Once Willie and friends start, they plow through the greatest of his greatest hits at supersonic speed. They open with a verse and chorus of “Whiskey River” that quickly changes to “Still Is Still Moving To Me”. Fifteen minutes in, Willie Nelson and friends have run through “Funny How Time Slips Away”, a verse and chorus of “Crazy”, and a loose, ethereal version of “Nightlife” with only a John Paul Jones-ish bass line and predictable lyrics holding things together.
This is the shape of things for the first forty-five minutes of the ninety-minute concert. Willie is literally playing all the hits. But many songs get short shrift in some way. Ballads are sped up, and many tunes seem to lose a verse or chorus at some point. Many in the crowd are happy to cheer and sing along to this format. However, the songs never reach a breathy entirety. Willie files off their fine-edges so that he and the band can play them without changing from this up-tempo Willie Nelson super-genre. I am personally saddened when “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain” is guillotined at the second chorus and played so quickly that the song’s memorable call-and-response between voice and guitar are lost in the frenzied impossibility of voicing fifty years of hits.
Still, this has been the Willie Nelson approach to concerts for over a decade, and it’s hard to argue that the crowd disapproves. Thankfully, the song arrangements grow to adult size periodically, and Willie starts to run out of the greatest greatest hits. The second half of the show becomes Willie Nelson the showcased songwriter, not Willie Nelson the human jukebox. The band takes on a more prominent role, with featured solos that help move the crowd away from a purely sing-along mindset. Willie, perpetually smiling, seems equally happy playing machine gun arrangements, longer jam-oriented cowbell blues pieces, or gospel-tinged standards such as “I’ll Fly Away”. Most in the crowd seem equally appreciative, although several dozen cell phone babies stand constantly at the bar, heads down and perpetually texting, while Willie Nelson plays just a stone’s throw away.
At 11:30 pm, Nelson punctuates the set with a Hank Williams tribute, and then exits the stage. He quickly returns with a third movement: Songs that capture not a timeless icon, but an aged man. He plays “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” and “Superman”, referencing medical ailments and getting laughs from the crowd. It is a fitting ending to a Willie Nelson concert. For the entire night, you are not sure if you are present to hear his music or simply to see the man himself. In the end, you attend for both. The encore, more autobiography than art, proves that we know and love Willie as much as we know and love his music. Yet Willie has one more surprise. He ends the concert where he began, playing “Whiskey River”, this time in its entirety.
Some at the House of Blues prove my worst fears true and leave mid-encore. I see them standing at the head of the valet line when I exit, economic to a fault. Willie Nelson’s America—truck-driving, rural, T-shirted, middle America—has little presence in the House of Blues tonight. Yet the preservationist put the cynic to bed hours ago. Neither an icon nor his opener has become simply the next course on the menu of the middle to upper-middle class crowd. Perhaps this proves that American flag headbands and lone star belt buckles are emblems of an authentic American experience too often hid by cell phones, valet parking, and eighty-dollar dinners for two. Or, even if consumer America remains suspect, Willie Nelson does not. He is an ambassador as much as an artist and icon, lifting music above corporate consumer values. And perhaps, unbeknownst to his crowds, Willie temporarily lifts them from their solicitation of America’s unfortunate, yet tried and true, consumer expectations.