Monday, April 21, 2008

One Hell Of A Ride

One Hell Of A Ride, Willie Nelson (4 CDs). In 1972, a frustrated and unfulfilled Willie Nelson left Nashville to return to his native Texas and settle near Austin. A major talent who had already written bona fide classics "Night Life" and "Crazy," Nelson possessed what would soon be recognized as one of the richest and most versatile voices in popular music. He dedicated the first half of the Seventies to guiding country music back to a rootsier sound and to refining his inimitable voice. Nelson spent the latter part of the decade becoming an international star who rivalled Elvis Presley as an interpreter of popular music. After that, his restless musical spirit explored one genre after another with admittedly mixed results that nonetheless displayed a musical vision unmatched in its munificence of spirit. One Hell Of A Ride condenses Nelson's remarkable career -- now in its sixth decade -- into 100 songs that pretty much deliver on the promise of its title. Perhaps the most fascinating element of the collection is the evolution of his unique vocal style. From the beginning, Nelson confounded the Nashville establishment by lagging behind the beat, much like a jazz singer. In the Seventies, he began the practice of holding one or two notes before yielding to a sudden cascade that might cram seven or eight notes into the same space occupied by the previous one or two. He also added his faint tremolo, perfecting the overall effect in time for 1977's Stardust, a crossover megahit that put households everywhere on a first-name basis with him: He became simply "Willie" to people the world over. Which doesn't mean that he stopped making great music in 1977. One Hell Of A Ride proves this with generous samplings of his memorable duets with the likes of Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Emmylou Harris; several cuts from 1992's excellent Borderline; some fine gospel sides; and such unexpected delights as his 2001 interpretation of "Rainbow Connection." It has indeed been a hell of a ride, and the beauty is that it's not over: Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis recently announced that he and Willie planned a July release of a blues concert from earlier this year.

Live Cactus, Joe Ely/Joel Guzman. Live Cactus isn't the best Joe Ely live album -- that will always and forever be Live Shots, one the best live albums by anybody -- but it's a pleasure from beginning to end. Ely has had a long and, outside of Texas, underappreciated career. Once considered Texas music's answer to Bruce Springsteen, he has settled into a productive tenure as one of Austin's most respected performers and recorded many fine albums. Live Cactus sounds like nothing so much as a pair of South Austin neighbors entertaining themselves on the back deck on a summer evening. You can practically see the cooler of beer between them. Accompanied by ace accordianist Guzman, Ely works through a set of faves, putting a new twist on each of them.

Lumiere Dans Le Noir, Zachary Richard. Cajun singer-songwriter Zachary Richard's first French language album proves a great vehicle for his haunting, plangent voice. It doesn't matter if you don't speak French (I certainly do not). When someone can sing that most beautiful of Western languages with with as much feeling and insight as Richard, there's no difficulty understanding what he's getting at. With the help of some of Louisiana's finest musicians, you feel Lumiere Dans Le Noir in your heart and soul, which in the end is what great music is all about.

Notes From The Underground, Elliott Murphy. Paris ex-pat Murphy follows up last year's excellent Coming Home Again with another thoughtful, witty release. Murphy's voice -- sort of a cross between latterday Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler -- is perfect for his songwriting. Notes features literate lyrics that cover ground spanning the simple the joys of the alphabet ("A if for Amazed you walk out of the shower...F is a word I do without shame") to the spiritual plight of old age ("Tell me if you can/Am I part of a plan/Will my secrets unfold/When I'm useless and old.") On the other hand, this is a man grateful for what he has and who has come to appreciate the power of love: "I count all my blessings 'till I can't count no more/I know God's grace when I walk in your door." I try not to lean so heavily on lyrics when I write reviews, but this guy is awfully good and can speak for himself much better than I can. Listen, and listen closely.

Live From Artist's Den, Patty Griffin (DVD). Normally, it would be a great compliment to call someone Austin's best singer-songwriter. In Patty Griffin's case, though, this sells her short. Griffin is (hopefully) in the midst of a stretch of excellence comparable to Steve Earle's 1995-2000 run. Each CD she releases tops the one before it, culminating in last year's brilliant Children Running Through. Along the way, she's evolved from a terrific belter to a vocalist of inquisitive nuance and deep emotion. Now, you can see what its all about with this concert DVD, which intersperses brief interviews into a concert from New York's Artist Den. Check it out:


Scrumpy's Baker said...

Love me some Willie!

K. said...

Willie is in a class by himself.