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Willie Nelson - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 11/6/2010

  by Anthony Dhanendran

published: 25 / 6 / 2010

Willie Nelson - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 11/6/2010


Anthony Dhanendran watches Willie Nelson play an evocative and often remarkable set in front of an exuberant audience at the Hammersmith Apollo in London

The Hammersmith Apollo has been converted tonight into an all-seater arrangement for Willie Nelson. That reduces the potential for rowdiness in what’s normally the standing section downstairs, but it does provide more comfort for the post-work crowd. In fact, the crowd here is post-work in two senses: some of them are togged up in suits having come straight from the office but a good proportion fulfil the Willie Nelson Audience Stereotype: old-ish, gray-ish and a few of them have the full ZZ Top beard going on. Sadly, there’s a disappointing dearth of Stetsons and only one person has actually come dressed as a cowboy. Clearly Hammersmith isn’t nearly far enough West to attract the hardcore when it comes to dressing the part. The pre-show tape, oddly, consists of Willie Nelson songs, including a smattering from his new album 'Country Music'. Then again, he’s an artist with such a large back catalogue that we’re unlikely to hear much that’s going to be duplicated in the show tonight. Nelson’s stage is set up sparsely, with a piano on one side, a drum kit on a riser in the middle and other percussion gear on the other side. A small but determined core of fans claps everyone who appears on the stage from the roadies to a slightly surprised usher, but the applause that greets the main act when he appears is rapturous and unmistakable. He launches straight into first song 'Whiskey River', against a backdrop of an enormous Texan flag. The pace tonight is frenetic, with Nelson eventually reeling off over 30 songs in a largely crowd-pleasing set. That’s not to say it’s unsatisfying – there are all the hits, but among them are sprinkled a few gems, and although Nelson’s voice is showing the signs of all those years touring, at the age of 77, it’s still quite remarkable at times, varying from thin and reedy to deep and wooden, a voice that speaks of years of world-weariness. The band is capable of evoking pictures too: on a couple of the early tracks with a honky-tonk piano going on, you half expect a pair of large wooden swing doors to appear at the side of the stage. He’s dressed almost entirely in black – black trousers, black shirt, black belt, t-shirt and hat. Only the ribbons and straps around his torso, some of them holding up his battered old Martin guitar, break up the darkness. The hits tonight include 'Crazy', 'Funny How Time Slips Away', 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain', 'On the Road Again', 'Georgia On My Mind', 'City of New Orleans', 'I’ll Fly Away' and of course 'Always On My Mind'. Many of them are reeled off, it’s true, but when they’re being reeled off in Willie Nelson’s voice you can forgive him. And those moments of greatness are there – the sparse arrangement of 'Always On My Mind' allows the song to shine through and Nelson’s voice to tingle the spines of the entire audience, as it’s meant to. There’s also a diversion into old-time country with a Hank Williams (Sr) medley, of 'Jambalaya', 'Move it On Over' and 'Hey, Good Lookin’. There are also a couple of tracks from 'Country Music', 'Man With the Blues' and the standard 'Nobody’s Fault But Mine', which slows things down a bit. When he sings, “If you need some advice on how to cry all night/Come to me/I’m the man with the blues” you can really believe it. 'Good Hearted Woman' is typical of Willie Nelson’s songwriting: like all the best country music it’s the stuff of small lives, the small scale mundanity and day-to-day tragedies that make for the most compelling of storytelling. It can, at the same time, be mawkish and sentimental, but Nelson’s songs, at their best, walk that fine tightrope carefully. He clearly enjoys touring: the trademark bandana puts in an appearance a few songs in and then a few songs later he tears it off and throws it into the crowd like a man decades younger. He may be reeling off the songs, as a man who’s been touring for so long is entitled to do, but it’s apparent that Nelson needs touring as much as we need him. The set closes with 'I’ll Fly Away' and 'The Party’s Over', which seem like traditional closers, the entire audience on its feet, and that’s when the realisation occurs that most of it has been crowd-pleasing. But then Willie Nelson knows damn well how to please a crowd.

Picture Gallery:-
Willie Nelson - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 11/6/2010

Willie Nelson - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 11/6/2010

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