Slipping Away With Two Country Gentlemen
Genial, intractable, unvarnished, in control: these were all equally true of Willie Nelson and Levon Helm on Wednesday night at Radio City Music Hall.
Each led his working band, engaging a cross-section of old-time American music, from folk and country to gospel, blues, early jazz, rock 'n' roll. Both men were radiant with authority and its trickier cousin, authenticity. The difference between them came down to effort.
Mr. Nelson, 77, has long been among the least labored of performers, a master of the meaningful half-gesture and the deceptively casual confession. He was true to form on Wednesday, initially to a fault. It took him a while to warm up, and the first songs felt hurriedly dispatched.
Funny How Time Slips Away" barely had time to unfold before he ducked into Crazy," briefly flummoxing his band. Night Life" was next up, and no less abbreviated. Three of Mr. Nelson's incandescent country-music standards had come and gone in a flash. At least he played them.
He was under no such obligation, after all. A few months back he released Country Music" (Rounder), a handsomely austere, staunchly tradition-minded album produced by T Bone Burnett. It's easily the most focused entry in the recent Willie Nelson discography, and he barely touched it here. ("Nobody's Fault but Mine," the song that closes the album, turned up shortly after the midpoint of the set.)
Taken as a concept rather than a checklist, though, Country Music" was well served by this show, which featured a lot of shuffle rhythm and favored wisdom over revelation. Easing into gear with the Family, his sparse and attentive cohort, Mr. Nelson gave the proper airing to songs by Hank Williams, Fred Rose and Lefty Frizzell, along with a few of his own. His guitar playing was clean and coltish--often he raced ahead of the beat, waited for the others to catch up and then sprinted forward again--and his singing was typically spry, a nasal twang just lightly abraded with age.
That's one more distinction between Mr. Nelson and Mr. Helm, whose bout with throat cancer a dozen years ago made singing of any sort seem a precious gift. Mr. Helm, 70, sang sparingly here, entrusting most of the task to members of the band: his daughter Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, the guitarist Larry Campbell and the keyboardist Brian Mitchell. (Also on keyboards was Donald Fagen of Steely Dan; he sang a bit too.) When Mr. Helm did vocalize, it took the form of a soulful rasp, weathered with cracks.
His drumming, on the other hand, was as lean as ever, a righteous marvel of concision and grit. He had plenty to work with in the set, with rhythms ranging from country two-step to New Orleans second-line. He played just a bit of mandolin, on Deep Ellum Blues," and took the opportunity to throw in some hip-thrusting dance moves. Everything about his presence suggested jubilant exertion.
Closing with The Weight," one of his biggest hits with the Band, he brought Mr. Nelson onstage as a guest. This was promising, but Mr. Nelson eschewed the microphone, choosing only to play a meandering guitar solo. Courtesy or complacency? Either way Mr. Nelson was doing his part, but only just passing through.