Willie Nelson & Friends Live - Stars & Guitars

Although not billed as a formal tribute to the Red-Headed Stranger, this star-packed revue recorded at the Grand Ole Opry finds Nelson (as on his previous album) in some rather dubious company. Why he suddenly feels the need to slum with the likes of Rob Thomas and Jon Bon Jovi perhaps says something about what he's been smoking, but at least on Stars & Guitars, their appearances are only minor distractions on a set that provides a fair overview of Nelson's career and influence. "Whiskey River" with the ubiquitous Sheryl Crow gets things off to an adequate start, and meathead Toby Keith actually does a good job subbing for the dearly departed Waylon Jennings on "Good Hearted Woman." Things don't get interesting again until Nelson's one-time mentor Ray Price steps up for a smoky "Night Life." From there it's hit-and-miss until the end, but the highlights ultimately outnumber the duds, with a rollicking "Dead Flowers" featuring Keith Richards, Ryan Adams and Hank Williams III leading the pack. As expected, Nelson saves his own best performances for ballads with the ladies. Young phenom Norah Jones could be the true heir to Nelson's original jazz/country experiment, as their connection on "Lonestar" beautifully displays. Thankfully, Nelson also saves one of his best songs, "Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground," for the under-appreciated Patty Griffin. Stars & Guitars is a true hodgepodge for even the biggest Nelson fan, but if you're prepared to pick and choose, the gems are worth having. But will someone simply let him make a record the way he wants to? (Lost Highway)