It’s doubtful that Jennings meant this show to be the grand statement and legacy-capping event that the record label is hyping it as.
Waylon Jennings and the Waymore Blues Band come blazing out the gates with “Never Say Die” at the start of this live performance, captured in one package on both two CDs and one DVD. “I ain’t giving in or giving up without a try,” he sings in a lively growl. It’s one of many references to death within the performance. They’re natural references, often lyrics within songs Jennings wrote years ago, but they’re likely to resonate strongly with listeners because of when this recording was made.
In January of 2000, Jennings had recovered from a stroke but was battling diabetes, which would take his life less than two years later. His last show was the following year, in Kansas City, but this would be the last show recorded for posterity. (Or pair of shows, actually – this performance is a blend of the January 5th and 6th performances.) The venue also plays a role in the idea that this is one last statement from a country legend. The Ryman Auditorium, is a historic venue in Nashville, the town where Jennings got his start and the homebase of the music industry with which he eventually battled, which gave him his “outlaw” reputation.
As a package, Never Say Die: The Final Concert Film, an expanded version of a single live CD released in 2000, thrives off the idea that this is a historic final statement from a dying man. Rich Kienzle’s liner notes describe it as “this magnificent epilogue to what will remain one of American music’s most remarkable careers.” The back cover proclaims, “It’s Waylon’s triumphant last hurrah.” That Jennings’ career is remarkable is without question. He remains one of the larger-than-life talents in country-music history. But such hyperbolic talk about this particular show builds expectations too high. It’s more rewarding to treat Never Say Die for what it is, a record of a solid, if not perfect, concert performance by Jennings near the end of his career.
It’s doubtful that Jennings meant this show as some grand statement. It’s obvious throughout the recording that he’s just grateful to still be able to do what he loves, to play music with friends. He indicates as much by the joking manner he treats the fact that he’s confined to a chair. “I can still kick ass, you’ve just got to bring ‘em up here,” he jokes between songs. His persona on stage fits the title chosen for the collection. The idea is: remain tough right to the end.
He still sings tough, too, on old favorites like “Waymore’s Blues” and “I’ve Always Been Crazy”. A perfect summation of his attitude comes near the set’s end, during “Goin’ Down Rockin”, a song Jennings introduces as “kind of the way I feel about things,” with its line, “If I ain’t gonna go down rockin’ / I ain’t gonna go down at all.” Yet there’s also plenty of songs here that reveal the emotional desperation underneath the toughness. There’s a hint of it in the fact that the macho “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” is followed up by “Help Me Make It Through the Night” – the latter with an over-emphasis on synthesizers that only manages to make the contrast sharper.
Several of the best performances here present that dichotomy more subtly, through ballads sung by the toughest of men about the complex machinations of the human heart. Jennings’ singing during a medley of “Amanda” and “A Couple More Years” is full of nuance and sensitivity. His duets with wife Jessi Colter show how love brings fullness to a person: “Storms Never Last” in particular is a show-stopper, not through fireworks but from its pure vision of peace amid turmoil.
Finding strength through love and community is an underlying theme throughout. A few members of the Waymore Blues Band had been playing with Jennings for decades, back to when the band was known as the Waylors. Others are newer additions, but the DVD shows every last one of them performing with broad smiles on their faces. Jennings pays tribute to pal Willie Nelson by imitating his part of their duets during a fine medley of “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”.
He gives the stage over to Colter, a legendary singer in her own right, for two songs, and then sings duets with her on two more. He also performs duets with a few younger musicians, Montgomery Gentry, Travis Tritt and John Anderson then introduces each one as if country music itself was a family or at least as if there were a family of musicians performing with the artistic independence that Jennings most respected.
That element of “passing the torch” probably feeds into the label’s marketing this as a monumental occasion. But any such claims overlook the weaknesses in the actual performance. Jennings sounds great, but the band has a tendency to gloss the songs up a little too much. For a musician whose essence is rough-and-tumble, it’s hard to take the smoothest of these arrangements, with horns and synthesizers serving as unnecessary gloss, as living up to that legacy. There’s also a handful of tepid covers of Southern rock chestnuts like “Drift Away” and “Can’t You See” (the finale, not exactly a leave-them-wanting-more barn-burner). Even The Band’s mighty “The Weight” gets a treatment not much different than your neighborhood cover band might give it.
The setlist is a jumble, then, of these less interesting moments together with classics from Jennings’ mighty discography (both originals and the covers that he made his own) and more obscure tracks that he hadn’t played in years. This variety does end up paying tribute to Jennings’ legacy, by evoking how many musicians and music fans have drawn inspiration from both his rebelliousness and his understanding of music’s power. It only does a disservice to this legacy to proclaim Never Say Die as some kind of Holy Grail that it isn’t. Yet it is a fine performance by a musician who should and will be remembered as a legend.