live Willie Nelson Royal Albert Hall, London

A good hour and a half into Willie Nelson's sojourn at the Albert Hall, the A&B execs from Island Records would have been twitching. The label's first country signing recently supplied them with a delightful acoustic album called Spirit, but out onstage, he's been known to let the latest product just plain slip his mind. And fair enough - at 63, the grey matter isn't as retentive as it was, and the daily joint is not the most useful aide-memoire.

When Spirit did finally elbow a space for itself, its emissaries all turned out to be about remembering. "She Is Gone", "Your Memory Won't Die in My Grave", "I'm Not Trying to Forget You" and "I'm Waiting Forever" all ambled mournfully by, four more sad songs to add to the hundreds and hundreds from the same undrying source.

Having remembered to play them, Nelson has just enough of a business brain to know that his audience mustn't forget them, either. So, dismissing the rhythm section and holding back only Jody Payne on guitar and his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, he delivered them clutter-free and soulfully. The competition for Tune To Hum On The Way Home was still on the stiff side. No sooner had he unshowily sauntered on than he was trotting through "Funny (How Time Slips Away)" and medleying into "Crazy". For almost any other performer, the only route from here would be a steep descent, but Nelson not only has his own tunes to challenge them but is certainly country's most unblushing interpreter of other people's songs.

And not just the generic good ol' Stetson stuff like Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" or Ed Bruce's "Don't Let Your Boys Grow Up to Be Cowboys". Hailing from the melting pot of Texas, Nelson has eclectic taste sewn into his genes, hence the kind of deeply un-Nashville covers you'd never find in, say, a Johnny Cash set - Kristofferson's "Help Me Make it Through the Night", Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind", Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies".

They all got the full Nelson treatment: with that nasal filter for a voice, he's ill- equipped to coat a song in emotion the way others turn his tunes into major-league weepies. The bitter-sweetness derives partly from the way he hurries the melody along almost dismissively, as if shy of making a big thing about it. Visually, he doesn't lay on a demonstrative show, either. For "Luckenbach Texas", the lone star flag drops down behind, but the only other splash of colour is in the trademark scarlet headband.

The Family band chug along with him - Bobbie's piano licks, Mickey Raphael's harmonica and Billy English's array of oddball percussion knick-knacks lending a distinctive blend of flavours.

The star soloist, of course, is Nelson himself, who wrenches sobbing tunes out of his ancient Martin acoustic. At 32 years of age, the instrument is a battered, well-travelled old thing, but it still makes all the right noises - a bit like its master's voice.

Comments