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Nelson could teach Billy Bob Thorton more than a few things Add to ...

Willie Nelson

  • At Massey Hall
  • in Toronto on Wednesday

We live in an age in which bad behaviour on a radio show can get you more attention than if you have one-quarter the talent of the living legend you've had the unbelievable luck to go on tour with. So let's deal with Billy Bob Thornton right away, the very junior partner on Willie Nelson's current concert tour.

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On Wednesday morning, Thornton, who has acted in a few high-profile films, gave a convincing performance on CBC Radio of a belligerent, barely lucid entertainer with a fierce sensitivity to any conceivable slight of his musical abilities. More than a few people with tickets to Nelson's show that evening were wondering if he had the chops to back up his rude self-regard.

He and his band the Boxmasters certainly looked sharp, in their skinny charcoal suits with every button done up. Thornton sang a few cool, loud examples of what he calls "cosmic cowboy music." His baritone was perfectly okay for the material, and he knows how to move around a stage, though I wouldn't call him a subtle stylist or master of rhythm.

He made a point of saying that Toronto was "the wildest town in Canada," having opined that morning that Canadian audiences are like "mashed potatoes with no gravy." Then he ordered everyone to stand up, turned his five guitarists loose on an interminable blues jam, and climbed behind a drum kit for one of the most amateurish performances I've ever seen at Massey Hall. I think I'd prefer the movie version.

Cut to the headliner, who has also made a few films and probably wouldn't mind if you mentioned them. Nelson had his own script for the evening, and it had everything to do with the exciting things that can happen when you leave out things that everyone takes for granted.

When Nelson took the stage, it looked as if part of his band and its gear were missing. No second guitarist and almost no drum kit. Drummer Paul English sat at the back of the stage with nothing but a snare drum. Nelson's sister Bobbie was at her grand piano, and a bassist lurked behind her. The stage looked as if it were set up for a recording session, or an informal date in a little club in Austin, with more players and stuff to arrive later.

The reduced support had a revelatory effect, at least for me. Until Wednesday, I had never heard Nelson live. Five minutes into his set, I felt kind of stunned by what a terrific guitar player he is, something I have never really perceived by listening to his records (including Moment of Forever, which came out last year).

For me, the set was really about the dialogue between Nelson and his guitar. He had it in his hands the whole time, but seldom touched the strings when he was singing. He would finish a vocal phrase, usually a bit early by English's beat, and the guitar would instantly respond before the next phrase began. In those brief intervals, he would throw out a short slashing chord figure, a laconic twist on the melody, a chromatic turn on the bottom string, or a dramatic single-note strumming that echoed Mexican guitar styles. Whatever he played, it always intensified the meaning of the line just sung.

Nelson plays religious songs from time to time (he did an up-tempo version of I'll Fly Away during Wednesday's set), and his guitar made me think of one of those congregations that cry out affirmations at every pause in the sermon. The difference is that Nelson's guitar often cast a darker, more ambivalent light on what was sung.

His instrument (an old classical guitar that he calls "Trigger") is famous for the hole he has worn into its face by decades of picking, and its distinctive twang has the same kind of sonority as the sharp nasal sound of his voice. That was another striking thing about this version of Nelson's band: how so much of it occupied the same end of the colour spectrum as his voice and guitar, with Mickey Raphael's reedy harmonica solos and that lone buzzy snare drum.

The set mostly ran to old favourites, though they all sounded new in some way. Crazy, possibly his best-known song, had a terse, deconstructed feeling to it. This was no reverie, as Patsy Cline and many others have presented it. It was now the song of a guy who has maybe been driven crazy too often and too long, and has tightened up from all the scarring.

For all the darkness that sometimes crept into the songs, the show had a genial feeling about it. Bobbie Nelson's florid barrelhouse piano solos seemed like the signal that an old-fashioned kitchen party was about to begin, assuming the kitchen was big enough for her piano.

Ray Price came on before Nelson, for a smooth and stately set of old-school Nashville hits, many of which he wrote. Price, who is 83, has a baritone voice with plenty of hurt still left in it, and a classic way of crooning out tunes like Release Me. His subtle 11-piece band moved around his voice on cat's paws. I would have liked a few more tempo breaks from the leisured andante that ruled the set, but what Price did could not be bettered on its own terms.

Willie Nelson performs at Place des Arts in Montreal on Friday and the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont., on April 11.

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