One More Billy Joe Shaver Post: Live At City Winery In 2014
There is 75 years old and then there is 75 years old and then there is Billy Joe Shaver, the renegade outlaw true son, I mean literally Great Great Grandson, of Texas, who looks every inch his 75 years of age and who, according to two women sitting next to me, has really aged in the past six years.
A tall glass of water with a backstory tinged with way too much tragedy, and a way with a story which spiraled out of control over the two hour plus set at City Winery Wednesday night, Billy Joe delved pretty deep into his catalog and pulled out the usual suspects and sang em and danced em, when not leaning back and letting his backup band, who got way too much time, do the heavy lifting.
It is age.
It is age and tragedy, three wives (“I realized I didn’t like being married” he cracked mid-way through a funny but set stalling story) , it is heart attacks and diminished income (that’s File Sharing in action) and a sort of senior moment compounded by a lot of room to fill.
Billy Joe started writing songs in 1966 and broke through in 1970 when Waylon Jennings began covering his raucous, borderline outlaw nursery rhyme country anthems, 45 years later his catalog is well known, country singers press it and play it –the move from gangsta to soul man and back is the method of operation for modern country boys, Billy Joe is the antecedent for all the guns, girls and pickup trucks in 2014 country. Billy Joe is what Eric Church daydreams about being.
At City Winery he opened with four sure shots, twenty five minutes of brilliance: “Heart of Texas”, “Fit To Kill And Going Out In Style”, “I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train” and “Worst song I’ve ever written”, “That’s What She Said Last Night” and although the band, guitar, harmonica, drums, Billie joe picks up his guitar as well but only to strum for a coupla bars, is into it, they are too loose and “Georgia On A Fast Train” derails, played in the wrong key till Shaver kills the song and starts again.
Earlier, Aaron Lee Tasjan performed a fine solo acoustic half hour (actually, a Georgia Satellite joined him on electric guitar) with a fistful of very smart songs including the simply brilliant “Santa Monica And Vine”, the witty as you thought it was “I Was Born With Nothing (And I’ve Still Got Half Of It Left)” and “ concluding with the Dylan like talking blues of “Streets Of Galilee”.
This segues into Shaver’s set and the first 25 minutes are exactly what we wanted, he is giving his band a little too much leeway and they aren’t quite good enough and even so… but then he began to rest on stories which ambled along when they should have been concise runs to the punchlines. The stories are interesting, late in the show he mentions being on tour when he learnt Waylon died and Kinky’s callousness is actually quite shocking, and his memories leading into songs, of his mother working at a nightclub when he was just eight years old, or how “Wacko from Waco” is his explanation of the self-defense shooting in 2007. or “If The Trailer Is Rocking Don’t Come A Knocking” is about his wife’s infidelity, this is illuminating stuff but he lacks self-control, or maybe he lacks the concentration to not stop the show dead in order to tell them.
We want to hear Billy Joe’s stories, but not like this.
The nadir is pretty damn low this night. 90 minutes in Shaver and the band left the stage to a session drummer to play a ten minute solo. I don’t get it. If he needed a break he should have taken intermission or at least left the band to jam together. And the heights happened early, he didn’t return to the first quarter of the show with its steady country outlaw swing.
Shaver is in a funny place, the wacked out crazy weird guy stuff has no edge or danger left, the I don’t start fights I finish them is a little sad from a guy this old, who looks this old, and whose dancing, whose movements has creakiness to them. His voice isn’t shot but it isn’t great and like many a singer, like good buddy Willie Nelson, before him, there is a rust on metal stuff to his voice, you wanna dust it off. I can’t help wonder if he would be doing this if the internet hadn’t destroyed the royalties off his back catalog, if ASCAP was still paying him. I saw John McLaughlin at the Blue Note a couple of years ago and he was all but begging us to buy his DVD, Shaver kept on hawking his excellent 2014 release Long In the Tooth. It was all a little sad. Like a hooker Grandma on a street corner, you’d hope at some time in her career she could hang up her garter belt and take out her dentures.
Shaver isn’t Chuck Berry or BB King, he isn’t there yet, and he is a lively presence, he speaks with the audience and has a natural gift for the give and take of live performance. Sam Smith should watch him to learn how to make your audience at ease with you, but the band sounded like proficient whatevers: the harp player was good, the standup bass player was pretty good, the guitarist who answered every Shaver request with a “hell yeah” was more than proficient, all of his solos signified, but they don’t have the intuitive grasp of Shaver the way James Burton used to with Jerry Lee Lewis,.
Jerry Lee is a good comparison, both have country in their blood, one Tennessee the other Texas, true, but Jerry Lee kept his concentration through the set at BB King’s last month, he kept his eye on what he wanted to do and he had a band that could keep him going. While it is true Shaver played four times longer than Jerry Lee, I’d have preferred less with more focus. Which is difficult with a past history of songs as great as his. What do you want to give up? A mid concert “Honky Tonk Heroes” with Shaver yodeling like Slim Whitman? A last song “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus”? The story leading up to “Ragged Old Truck” which culminates in Shaver lying in bed and trying to kill himself?
This is aural (also written, his autobiography is called “Honky Tonk Heroes”) history and it connects us back to the birth of Texas, it is good music and it is fun but age caught up with Billy Joe and the show meandered where it should have struck out, any threat he ever had has completely disappeared, the band were nothing special and how I wish I’d seen him 20 years ago. Like Shaver warned us, never play Russian Roulette with an automatic.