So last night my superfine sexy lady and I caught the Willie Nelson show at the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts. When I go to club shows, I’m used to being one of the oldest guys at the concert, so that was one refreshing thing about seeing Willie Nelson — in his audience we were a regular couple of whippersnappers. I don’t want to say that Willie’s crowd is old, but the stage lights run on The Clapper. This crowd is so old they don’t smoke weed during the show, they smoke Metamucil. This crowd is so old they call Beethoven ‘Junior.’
I cannot for the life of me remember the last time I attended a concert in a big hall like the Mullins, the type of hall with thousands of seats where you are required to just sit there and shut up and no dancing or even standing and by the way please enjoy the show, but it’s been many, many years. To give you a hint, it was probably at the abomination known as the Richfield Coliseum, the former home of the Cleveland Cavaliers (1974-1994), which shut down in 1994 and was finally demolished in 1999. The sound quality in the Coliseum was roughly equivalent to the inside of a metal shipping container, and it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I realized I’d wasted hundreds of dollars and essentially my entire adolescence going to concerts at that sorry excuse for a venue, since I may as well have been listening to The Who and the Kinks and Rush and Cheap Trick from underwater. Oh, and every trip there pretty much guaranteed an hour stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, since the powers that be saw fit to build a 20,000 seat hall out in the middle of nowhere on a rural two lane highway. Nick Mileti, you robbed me of my rock and roll childhood.
But back to Willie. The sound at the Mullins was not too bad, partly because it was not a loud show. Our seats were decent, stage right, lower section. Can I get a holla from Section F, Row 10?? Woot! woot! But the show was sparsely attended, even though they did that thing of moving the stage halfway across the floor and leaving well over half of the arena roped off and dark. I don’t know, there’s something vaguely creepy about all those empty seats, too many ghosts of rockers past, I guess.
Billy Bob Thorton with Special Guests The Boxmasters opened the show with an utterly undistinguished 40 minute set of mixed country rock. It felt as though some weekend bar band got waylaid on their way to their standing gig at the Seven-O’s. The band was decent but Billy Bob has no voice and even less presence on stage, though I think it’s intentional as he’s trying to be cool and aloof. I will admit that he was wearing a pretty sharp suit. I thought he was the drummer in the band but he was up front on vocals the whole set. On the band’s last song he politely requested that the audience stand up, which I believe is something that is typically achieved by, you know, actually exciting the crowd, but, hey, whatever works. The old guys next to me complied with much groaning and complaining and hitching of pants, as though they were standing for the national anthem. Before the set ended, Billy Bob tossed a few drumsticks into the crowd like he was tossing bread to ducks, carefully making eye contact with each recipient before letting fly, which contrasts with ye good olde days when drumsticks were flung at unsuspecting concert-goes like high velocity death missiles. As far as stage banter, Billy Boby played it safe: there was no mention of mashed potatoes, gravy, Canada, or other interview-related issues. Verdict: Billy Bob, don’t give up your day job (whatever that may be).
Next up was Ray Price, who played with an 11 piece band, including a lush four piece string section. He did a pleasant, no-nonsense set that included many of his standards, including “Lay Your Head Upon My Pillow,” “Please Release Me,” and a cover of Hank Williams’s “A Mansion on the Hill.” Price is 83, but his voice still sounds good and true. Verdict: A class act.
Next up was Willie, who sauntered on-stage without introduction, snapped on his acoustic guitar, and launched into “Whiskey River” before it seemed like his band was quite with him. This seems to be his style live, as he does very odd readings of his best known songs, with phrasing and melody that are just off from what you are expecting. And it felt a little like he was rushing through many of his best known songs. I’m sure this keeps it interesting for him the five thousandth time he does “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” but I would have preferred more traditional renditions. He brought back Ray Price for a couple of duets, including “Crazy,” and he did a couple of new songs where he was more engaged. Again, I think a big part of the problem is the venue, which encourages the crowd to just sit there like we’re all watching a movie. Every once in a while during the show someone in the crowd would saunter up to the stage and take a picture of Willie with their phone or digital camera, then they’d politely return to their seats. Very strange behavior for a rock and roll show, I must say. I’m used to a crush of bodies against the barricades, but with a crowd this old the only crush was for the rest rooms during intermission. Verdict: Glad I finally saw him live, but nothing life-altering.