This co-headliner show seemed like an oddball match to some observers: an 82-year-old country music legend and a 44-year-old songwriter who has operated on the fringes of popular music for more than 20 years, dabbling in nearly every genre.
Friday night at Starlight Theatre, Willie Nelson and Beck joined forces, nearly selling out the place, and though their styles and deliveries varied, both gave the crowd of more than 7,000 plenty of high-octane entertainment.
Nelson opened the evening with a brisk one-hour set that featured more than 15 songs, including a couple of instrumentals and medleys. He opened with “Whiskey River,” then “Still Is Still Moving to Me.”
Things sounded a little rough at first, as if Nelson needed a few songs to find his footing. Even his guitar tone sounded off. About the time he got to “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” he’d righted the ship. (A friend sitting way up front texted me that it took a few songs before Nelson noticed there was a pick stuck under the first four strings of the first fret of his guitar. That couldn’t have helped.)
For the rest of the set, he and his band were on point. Nelson is famous for altering his phrasing and the melodies of his songs, sliding in to sing-speak regularly. There was plenty of that during his set, but there were also times when he stayed closer to the original versions, like “Georgia on My Mind” and his cover of “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
The stage was adorned only with a large Texas flag that hung above his five-piece Family band, which included his older sister, Bobbie Nelson, at the piano, and Mickey Raphael on the blues harp. Both embellished songs with leads and runs throughout the set.
Willie Nelson seemed to grow more animated as the show went on. He coaxed the crowd into singalongs a few times; “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was one of the loudest of those.
Other highlights: his Hank Williams tribute (“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” / “Hey, Good Lookin’”/ “Move It on Over”) and his closing song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” which aroused a lot of hoots and hollers from the big crowd.
Beck took the stage about 45 minutes later. Throughout his 100-minute set, a large video screen behind his band broadcast a variety of graphics and images.
He opened with something mellow, “The Golden Age,” a lush, electric-folk tune from his standout “Sea Change” album. He sustained that mood with “Blue Moon,” a track from “Morning Phase,” which won album of the year at the Grammys in February and which sounds like the lost twin to “Sea Change.”
Before “Jack-Ass,” the first of several songs from his breakthrough “Odelay” album, Beck introduced the song’s official video, which starred Willie Nelson as the wizard sprinkling magic dust. After “Jack-Ass,” he shed a jacket to reveal a black Western shirt with fringe, then summoned Nelson from backstage, and the two delivered a rough, impromptu version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train.”
After that, it was all Beck. He drew songs from all over his catalog, which now comprises nine studio albums, and played several of his best-known songs, like “Loser,” his first big hit. He played only four from “Morning Phase,” almost apologizing when he played two of those in a row, “Blackbird Chain” and “Waking Light.”
He also advised the crowd that this was his first show in eight months and said he was sorry for “screwing up all over the place,” though nothing glaring was apparent. His band, featuring guitarists Roger Manning and Jason Falkner and drummer Joey Waronker, was tight all night, navigating the sometimes abrupt shifts in genres, from folk (“Lost Cause”) to funk (“Sexx Laws”) and R&B (“Debra”) to scuzzy-blues (“Guero”) and electronic-rock (“Black Tambourine”).
All of those were highlights in a show that suffered no lulls or missteps. So were “Devil’s Haircut,” “Sissyneck” and “Where It’s At,” one of his closers. All are from “Odelay,” which got lots of love and attention.
Beck is an enthusiastic performer and a natural crowd-pleaser, an entertainer who appears to be having as much fun as his fans. He chatted a bit between songs, recalling some brutally hot summers he spent in Kansas City, and he confessed the relief he feels in being away from drought-stricken California and in a place where he can run water at a sink and not feel guilty.
During “Debra” he tried to show off his “17-octave voice,” but only made it to “9.5.” And he danced a lot, in his charming, unself-conscious quirky way.
In many ways, his show was the antithesis to Nelson’s, yet there was something oddly symmetrical and deeply satisfying about this special night.
Beck: Golden Age; Blue Moon; Jack-Ass; Waiting for a Train (with Willie Nelson); Loser; Devil’s Haircut; Black Tambourine; Sissyneck; Think I’m in Love; Guero; The New Pollution; Soul of a Man; Lost Cause; Heart Is a Drum; Blackbird Chain; Waking Light; Girl; Sexx Laws; Debra; Where It’s At; E-Pro.
Willie Nelson: Whiskey River; Still Is Still Moving to Me; Good Hearted Woman; Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys; Shoeshine Man; Funny How Time Slips Away / Crazy / Night Life; Down Yonder; Me and Paul; Help Me Make It Through the Night; Jambalaya (On the Bayou) / Hey, Good Lookin’/ Move It On Over; Georgia on My Mind; Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground; On the Road Again; Always on My Mind; Will the Circle Be Unbroken / I’ll Fly Away; I Never Cared for You; Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.