Willie or Won't He?
Call The Spin cynics if you like, but we knew better than to hem and haw or look a gift horse in the mouth when we were offered an invitation to watch Willie Nelson celebrate his 80th birthday with a taping of CMT Crossroads — a taping slated to air in late June, with cameos from some jaw-droppingly huge names. Rather, we responded with a gleeful, "Yes please, when and where?" Turns out the "when" was to be Thursday, April 18, and the "where" was Jack White's Third Man Records.
Now, The Spin has caught many a show in TMR's show space, the Blue Room, but this taping was to be the first live concert to take place in the compound's recently completed warehouse next door. According to one Third Man employee, this was likely just a one-off — CMT and/or Willie wanted to tape in the daffodil-colored interior of the new building, so that's what they were going to do. We soon discovered that a slated Jerry Lee Lewis cameo had been dropped from the bill, and that Leon Russell had pre-taped his duet with Willie — the latter had a conflicting show on Thursday night at 3rd & Lindsley, but we never found out why The Killer wasn't able to make it.
After Willie's band members had taken the stage and the CMT folks had checked the audio levels, the Redheaded Stranger took his rightful place in the spotlight. Record Store Day Ambassador Jack White appeared on the balcony over the stage — the balcony is fashioned to look like that of a motor lodge somewhere in idyllic Middle America — in order to introduce Nelson. A pre-show press release had billed White as the evening's MC, but a brief intro was all we'd hear from the White Stripe that evening. "T for Texas, T for Tennessee," said White, referencing Jimmie Rodgers' classic "Blue Yodel No. 1" before proclaiming, "Nothing says America like the man that's about to play."
The band was an amalgam of old Nashville pros, longtime friends of Willie, and Jack White sidepersons — Phil Madeira on guitar, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Lillie Mae Rische on the fiddle, Dominic Davis leading the band on bass, Marco Giovino on drums, the omnipresent auxiliary man Fats Kaplin on this and that and ... well, we know a couple other folks played on a song or two (that was local-boy-made-good Cory Younts tickling the ivories on one song), but we may have missed someone in the flurry. Not only that, but we were a bit busy pinching ourselves when we noticed Willie was strumming his trusty old (and we mean old, as he's been playing it for 44 years) guitar Trigger on "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," the single that Nelson released last year on 4/20 (when else?).
Willie's first guest was youngster Ashley Monroe, who — sweetly deferential as she straightened Nelson's pigtails and grinned widely — delivered vocals on "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" and the iconic "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," Willie playing his idiosyncratic and choppy solos all throughout. Next up was outlaw torchbearer Jamey Johnson, who ambled into the spotlight and started strumming along on "Permanently Lonely" before anyone really had the chance to catch their breath — you'd almost think no one had told Johnson that he was on camera. Anyway, we've long noted some similarities between Johnson's inflection and that of Nelson, and it was a true-to-form rendition. An up-tempo, full-band take on 1973's outlaw anthem "Shotgun Willie" followed. Norah Jones came out to play piano and sing on a pair of absolute Willie classics: "I Gotta Get Drunk" and "Funny How Time Slips Away." We've always enjoyed Jones' pristine croon, and we hoped to hear her take on "Crazy." No such luck — we'd have to wait a little bit to hear that one.
And then it was the moment we still can't exactly believe we were privy to: Neil Young striding out plainly in his T-shirt and baseball cap, joining his old pal Willie Nelson for a take on "Sail Away" from Young and Crazy Horse's superb 1979 LP Rust Never Sleeps. Not only were Young's two tunes the only non-Willie numbers of the night, but "Sail Away" was also the only song that began with a false start — it seems the wrong lyrics were cued up on a teleprompter, and, Young admitted with good humor, it tripped him up a bit. While Nelson's contributions to the number were somewhat limited, it remained a goosebump-inducing moment, right up until Young punctuated the song's end with a mildly premature "thank you" — he mentioned that while on tour with the Judds many moons ago, he noticed their penchant for thanking the audience before the song was through. Young introduced his next song with the note that it was actually written for his car, but that it would work for Willie too. The tune was "Long May You Run," of course, and between the song's sentiment and Young's top-notch performance, it was The Spin's favorite moment of the evening.
Willie's final duet partner was a denim-and-turquoise-clad Sheryl Crow, who shared a story of an airport security official once suggesting to her that she collaborates with Nelson just a bit too much. Of course, Nelson got the biggest laugh when he asked if she just told the fella in question to go on and give her back her shoes, thank you very much. We'll say, we were surprised at just how painless the evening turned out to be — television tapings don't always go quite so smoothly, but Crow and Nelson's take on "Far Away Places" was the only song that had to be run two times that evening. They wrapped up with "Crazy," on which Norah Jones played piano and Crow delivered the lead vocal ... she ain't Patsy Cline, but she certainly didn't disappoint.
The evening ended with a rendition of "Whiskey River," for which all of Willie's friends returned to the stage. It was a big, grandiose affair to celebrate the icon's 80th birthday, which falls on either April 29 or April 30 — while most online sources say it's the 30th, one CMT source told us that they heard "April 29" straight from the horse's mouth. An impromptu "Happy Birthday" came up from the band and crowd alike, and we found our way out of Third Man fully aware that this was the sort of celebration we were lucky to witness — whether or not we were worthy.
For the Records
Record Store Day may very well be The Spin's favorite holiday, and we were stoked on what this year's festivities held in store: the grand opening of Fond Object over on the East Side; Record Store Day Ambassador Jack White debuting his Voice-o-Graph booth at Third Man Records; monsters of emo-pop Paramore playing at Grimey's alongside Scene faves The Features and Hotpipes; and a big, fat celebration over at The Groove. We managed to catch a little of all of it — and even pet a pig and record our very own Third Man single in the process.
At Grimey's, awkward teen romance was budding as aspiring vinyl nerds mingled with Paramore fans, who formed their own separate line to secure a chance at meeting (formerly) Franklin's great emo hope. Indeed, the early part of the day was clearly dedicated to the babies, with Paramore fans (and Paramore fans' dads) swarming while a handful of middle-schoolers got into position to play Beck songs. Which probably means that photographer John Brassil's DJ set of marijuana novelty songs, while hilarious, may not have been totes apropos. The Poplar Grove Middle School Ensemble settled in for their 11:30 a.m. set of songs pulled from Beck's Song Reader, an album released only on sheet music. We've never actually heard these songs before, so we can't really say if their performance was spot on, but it was nothing if not adorable. And isn't that all you want from middle school kids playing Beck songs? The answer is yes.
Virginian Daniel Bachman immediately followed the ensemble with a set of wind-swept guitar folk, playing instrumental tunes reminiscent of Kaki King's contributions to the score for Into the Wild. As you might expect, the Paramore fans — who at this point were occupying every open space near the stage — treated it with mild amusement. Same goes for DJ Pimpdaddysupreme, who was trying his damnedest to get the party started, even resorting to playing Macklemore and Baauer to get the crowd hyped. But it wasn't until Paramore's Hayley Williams made her way to the stage that the crowd accelerated into full-fledged freak-out mode.
Williams was joined by guitarist Jeremy Davis and bassist Taylor York for a 25-minute set of acoustic tunes, starting with the three songs from their Record Store Day exclusive release (which is pressed into the shape of a hibiscus flower), before diving into a collection of hits and new songs — including "Misery Business" and others. We're not exactly Paramore's key demographic, but we could at least appreciate that they do what they do well. And good on Williams for delicately engaging with her fans, who were word-vomiting nonsense at her out of uncontainable excitement.
Meanwhile, over at Third Man Records, the carnival aspect was in full swing as scores of tri-color collectors and Jack White devotees were predictably pouring out onto the sidewalk in multiple lines to buy limited-edish 7-inches and The White Stripes' Elephant reissue and take a spin in the über-awesome antique Voice-o-Graph booth.
Inside the Blue Room, alt-rock singer-songwriter session man and Brendan Benson collaborator Mark Watrous was midway through a solo electric set, winning over the seemingly mostly unfamiliar crowd with his pitch-perfect high notes and hypnotically tense finger-picked pop dirges. Watrous got an almost unanimous cheer when he asked the crowd how many folks had camped outside the store overnight to stake their spots in line. Pulling double duty, Watrous also backed Karen Elson for the fire-headed singer/supermodel's half-hour-or-so-long set, which she kicked off with a desert-rustic, spaghetti-Western-worthy new cut called "Hell and High Water." Other characteristically eerie-sounding highlights of the short-but-sweet set included a sensually menacing murder ballad "Truth Is in the Dirt," the foreboding slow-burner "The Birds They Circle" and the lonely lover's pine "Pretty Babies."
So about this Voice-o-Graph — it's a vintage on-the-go mobile studio that records up to two minutes of audio and instantly plays it back and presses it onto a 6-inch phonograph. At the suggestion of The Ambassador himself, we gave it whirl. And we must say, it's pretty fuckin' rad, the hisses and pops of the finished product resulting in what we can best describe as analog Instagram. White excitedly informed us that the guy who was before us in line recorded a marriage proposal (that's a novel touch!), and before that another RSD patron used the booth to cut a recording of his last will and testament. We briefly considered raising the bar with a murder confession, but ultimately chickened out.
Over at The Groove, the crowd spilled over from the back yard in all directions, and we squeezed through just in time for Tristen's sound check. Despite rolling with a condensed backing group — Buddy Hughen on guitar, Matt Moody on bass and Hanzelle's Jeremi Morris on the hybrid-electronic drum kit — technical difficulties abounded. The Who's "Naked Eye" and Dinosaur Jr.'s cover of Frampton's "Show Me the Way" wafted by on the cool breeze while we waited for the sound guy to evict the hobgoblins. The tunes from Tristen's upcoming release, C A V E S, feature an ensemble-based approach and an organic, dancy feel, starkly contrasting 2011's guitar-oriented Charlatans at the Garden Gate. Tristen and band scored highest with serpentine groover "Anti-Baby," our personal fave from the new crop, and "No One's Gonna Know," the first single slated from the album.
A few flips through the dollar bins later, Chrome Pony kicked out a display of rock that was equal parts power and finesse. Brothers Tyler and Kyle Davis, with Fly Golden Eagle's bassman Matt Shaw along for the ride, rode high on clouds of power chords and searing, almost glammy licks, propelled forward by brother Kyle's nuanced, powerhouse drumming. Making a mental note to keep an ear on their tasty combo of rough-hewn edges and precision, we hit the road for Riverside Village.
The neighborhood surrounding Fond Object reminded us of our most recent visit to Austin: smiling faces and the smell of cooking food everywhere, and a dearth of convenient parking for latecomers. During our two-block walk to the record store/vintage clothier/arts workshop founded by The Ettes and friends, which celebrated its grand opening Saturday, we could hear Promised Land wrapping their set of '70s-influenced barroom rock 'n' roll, so we started with a quick cruise through the record store. Comprising partner Jeff Pettit's massive collection, the stock's selection was both broad and deep. We didn't find the particular Buck Owens title we were looking for, but had our choice of at least a dozen other of his LPs, quite reasonably priced.
On the porch of the little yellow house in the back yard, J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices tuned up and laid into some of the most dance-worthy country music we've heard in quite a while. Drums and nimble bass nipped along together, unfurling tasteful flourishes that hinted at raw power underneath, while the steel bit and the piano brought to mind Skynyrd's great keyboardist, Billy Powell. "These clothes ain't dirty, they're just stained / From the honky-tonk lifestyle I've maintained," Harris sang in a sped-up take on "Badly Bent," a song he called "a honky-tonk speed date" before indicating that it would appear in At Any Price, the soon-to-be-released flick featuring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron. The song, he said, was chosen to replace some Toby Keith tunes used in early edits and cited as "not country enough" by the producers; no surprise there. More than a few skinny-jeans-clad folks were napping between saying hello to Dottie the Shop Pig, Fond Object's official (and we must say, rather adorable and well-behaved) mascot.
Back at Grimey's, the crowd had shifted dramatically from the Paramore mob scene to familiar local rock faces for the glorious return of Hotpipes. In case you thought that the band might be rusty after laying dormant for all these years, you'd be dead wrong. If anything, the resurrected incarnation — backed up by Dave Paulson, Keith Lowen and Jerry Pentecost — is even more righteously rock 'n' roll than before. Songs like "Answer Your Telephone" and "Anna, Come Down" off the forthcoming Dust are epically anthemic, sold brilliantly by Jon Rogers and Dan Sommers.
Then came The Features, doing their Features thing. Nashville's most consistent rock band celebrated the impending release of their forthcoming self-titled record with a set mostly composed of brand-new jams, bending only once to accommodate a request of "Walk You Home." Normally we'd be bummed to not hear "Circus" or "Contrast," but the new songs are a fantastic natural continuation of what we heard on Wilderness. And not a bad way to end a long day at Grimey's.