It must be tough to make a live concert into a TV special. There are all sorts of production requirements that are satisfied by starting and stopping an event while taping. And while the end result ca
It must be tough to make a live concert into a TV special. There are all sorts of production requirements that are satisfied by starting and stopping an event while taping. And while the end result can look and sound seamless on the air, in person those delays can be painful as energy is sapped, spontaneity killed, and momentum halted, tainting what should be the show of a lifetime.
Such was the case at the USA Network's Willie Nelson & Friends event. Usually, any concert with a lineup that promises Nelson joined by Eric Clapton, Lyle Lovett, Norah Jones, Paul Simon, Sheryl Crow, and Elvis Costello, among many others, would normally keep fawning attendees rapt. Unfortunately, this early birthday celebration (Nelson turns 70 April 30) saw seats emptying as hours wore on and more time was spent watching stagehands reset equipment than the fabulous musical moments sandwiched in between.
Some of the breaks in the five-hour show were undoubtedly well worth it, despite spotty sound—with attention undoubtedly paid to recording a superior mix from the soundboard for broadcast use. Chief among them was Clapton's effortless guitar playing and raspy vocal, which transcended those elements during a standout duet with Nelson on "Night Life" that was easily the night's highest peak.
Another highlight was a gorgeous rendition of "Crazy," a Nelson heartbreak tale made famous by Patsy Cline, performed by jazz stunner Diana Krall, Nelson, and Costello. The teaming of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Nelson on "Once Is Enough," the first half as slow country blues, the latter as hard-driving rock, was also worth the wait. Performances by Shelby Lynne, Toby Keith, and John Mellencamp were also strong, as was Nelson's closing set with his own band.
Production issues tainted Ray Charles and Leon Russell's performance of the latter's "A Song for You" with Nelson. The first time through, Charles threatened to steal the show, with a gripping and passionate vocal and piano performance. Repeated minutes later for reasons unknown, Russell's performance clearly benefited from the second take, but Charles had lost the moment.
Some performances landed far from their promise, such as Nelson and Simon's duet on "Homeward Bound." The song started shakily and a tentative Nelson, unsure of the song's phrasing, stood away from his microphone and ran lines together as he read from a TelePrompTer. Similar issues prevented his duets with Norah Jones, Kenny Chesney, and Shania Twain from shining. Also, Kris Kristofferson faced a different issue as his vocals weren't up to matching Sheryl Crow's zeal during an early run-through of "Me & Bobby McGee."
Though exhausting and at times tedious in its live execution, Willie Nelson & Friends will probably come off as one helluva party when broadcast on Memorial Day.—BJ