Published Jun 21, 2013The choice of Willie Nelson as opening act of the Toronto Jazz Festival drew raised eyebrows (and a facile Toronto Star feature), but it can certainly be justified. Over the years, Willie has both covered many jazz standards and has had his own tunes done by jazz artists, not to mention that his signature vocal style has subtle phrasings suggestive of jazz. This superb concert grazed more on the country side of the fence, and the sold-out crowd lapped it up. Nelson scarcely missed a beat throughout the generous 100 minute set, one classic seguing right into another, with just the occasional "Thank you very much" thrown in for punctuation.
The initial pace was almost too quick, as Willie classics like "Crazy" and "Night Life" were delivered as part of a medley, but he soon settled into a more relaxed, though still brisk, groove. He mixed things up with a couple of crisp instrumentals, one played on the piano by his sister, Bobbie. The show helped remind us what a fluent and versatile acoustic guitarist Nelson is, slipping in a few Django Reinhardt-esque licks with ease to show there's nothing arthritic about his 80-year-old fingers. Mixed in with Willie favourites like "Always On My Mind," "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," and "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" were tunes from his new album, Let's Face The Music and Dance. The lovely version of the Irving Berlin title cut was a real highlight, along with the breezy "South Of The Border." Other writers covered in the set included Tom T. Hall and Billy Joe Shaver, though the audience could have done without the rather throwaway version of "Jambalaya."
Willie's aged but smooth bourbon voice was in top shape throughout. He closed things in fine style, getting the crowd to sing along to "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," then laugh to his pot smokin' anthem "Roll Me Up And Smoke Me," followed by uplifting takes on gospel tunes "I'll Fly Away" and "I Saw The Light." Instead of an encore, Willie then spent nearly ten minutes shaking hands, signing vinyl, throwing whatever red bandanas he had (and even a cane) into the crowd. The show was minimalist in just about every way: no introduction of the five-member band (the Family), no backdrop or stage props, no light show. It was just a man with a voice, a guitar and a lifetime of wonderful songs. Let's have none of this "great for an 80-year-old" stuff. This was great for any age.