You know you’ve done something right in life when Ray Charles, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello and Norah Jones are serenading you at your 70th birthday party. That’s just a sampling of the star-studded lineup at Willie Nelson’s “Live and Kickin'” hootenanny at New York’s Beacon Theater, which will air on the USA Network on Memorial Day. It remains to be seen how the event will translate as a two-hour broadcast; sitting through the four-plus-hour concert under hot TV lights, things got a bit uncomfortable. But there were enough truly magic moments to make the second takes and protracted set-ups all worthwhile.
It seemed like every time things threatened to get too tedious, we received an introduction like this: “Ladies and gentlemen, William Jefferson Clinton!” Robert DeNiro (who totally flubbed his scripted lines, incidentally) is one thing, but Bill Clinton is as bold-faced as celebrity gets. And it generated a great moment: When a few “rude Republicans” (Clinton’s words) greeted the ex-prez with boos, the star of the show quickly revealed his allegiances, quipping, “Was that you with me on the roof?” The joke referred to Willie’s legendary pot-smoking session on the Carter White House roof back in the ’70s.
Being there to celebrate the life and work of one of America’s greatest living artists kept everybody’s egos in check, which made for some amazing performances. Early in the show, Sheryl Crow and Kris Kristofferson duetted on Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Willie, Leon Russell, and Ray Charles united for an absolutely heart-stopping take of Russell’s “A Song for You.” Then they were asked to repeat it due to a technical glitch, which seemed cruel, but of course they pulled it off like the pros they are. The pairing of Willie and Paul Simon on “Homeward Bound” had a restrained beauty. As they were harmonizing I glimpsed a guy holding up his cell phone to share the song with a pal who also may have been far from home.
Norah Jones was lovely, with obvious affection for the man of the moment, and a sweet wistfulness so complimentary to Nelson’s own delivery that a Stardust II duet album doesn’t seem out of the question. The crossover country star Shelby Lynne put her soulful spin on two of Willie’s finest songs, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” — the latter with Lyle Lovett. Nelson’s hook-up with Eric Clapton – they were united for a bluesy turn on “Night Life” – was one of the evening’s most natural and affecting performances. One of the night’s other high points was “Crazy.” Elvis Costello and his new ladylove Diana Krall helped Willie take the song to stunning heights.
And there was more: Shania Twain, ZZ Top, Steven Tyler, Wyclef Jean; the celebs were out in full force. So it must have been that much more rewarding to “The Family,” Willie’s longtime backing band, when they were met with rousing hoots and hollers. The group settled in for their signature tune “Whiskey River” as the hour approached 1 a.m. Soon a guitar-shaped birthday cake was brought onstage, and the celebration ended with an all-star jam of “On The Road Again.” After shaking hands and signing autographs for a crowd that included yours truly (it’s hanging on the fridge), Willie got ready to get back on the Honeysuckle Rose III, where he will celebrate his actual birthday, April 30th, on the road.