POP MUSIC REVIEW : Jerry Jeff Walker Retains Persona While Discarding Stage Wildness

Share via

For a man whose performances could once be rated by the number of times he fell over on stage, it was a decidedly more continent Jerry Jeff Walker who performed at the Crazy Horse Steak House on Monday evening.

And if Walker may not have flown as wildly as he was reputedly wont during his distilled days, it seemed a worthy compromise that the 47-year-old singer can still convey the atmosphere of a Texas roadhouse party without starring as its chief casualty.

Like fellow Austin, Tex., landmark Willie Nelson, Walker still seems to carry a personal haze about with him, lending a thick sense of mood and a slightly out-of-focus insouciance to all his material. It was a handy thing that the die-hard Jerry Jeff fans filling the room were familiar with his songs because diction clearly wasn’t the singer’s highest priority.


Walker often let his lines trail off or mumbled through them, but in most cases such phrasing peculiarities resulted in a more expressive melodiousness, adding a reflective, wistful shading to all but his most spree-bent lyrics. One can only lend so much sensitivity to a song like “Redneck Mother,” which seemed the musical equivalent of a large American sedan careening out of control, while Walker exclaimed, “Yes I’m drunk. What the hell do you think I am, a stunt driver?”

Where he has most often worked as a solo performer for several years, he was backed Monday by an excellent, responsive, five-piece band, spearheaded by the impassioned pedal-steel flights of Lloyd Maines. Walker’s sole solo outing was on the encore “Laying My Life on the Line,” a touching reflection on his life in music, which in other hands could have come off as a smarmy “My Way” self-tribute.

One other quality that he and his band hold in common with Willie Nelson was the way their performance seemed an organic, open-ended thing, even while hitting all the expected marks such as “Home With the Armadillo,” “L.A. Freeway” and “Mr. Bojangles.” Even after thousands of performances, Walker still breathed more life into the latter tune than the Dirt Band ever managed, conveying the sense of having actually been in that New Orleans jail cell.

While that song was drawn from Walker’s own experience, he was no less compelling when extolling the cowboy life--which is scarcely more prevalent in Austin now than in Orange County--or when singing songs he didn’t pen. The strongest ballad in the set was “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” written by Walker’s opening act and label-mate Chris Wall.

Unlike practically every other song that arrogantly invokes the country great’s name--including those by Hank Jr.--Wall’s song didn’t stake a claim to Williams’ outlaw legacy, but instead told of a disconsolate husband who turns to his phonograph for solace, concluding, “A Bird saxophone just won’t sound right, I feel like Hank Williams tonight.”

In his own set, the Orange County-raised Wall displayed a competent, though not particularly personalized, singing voice, and his lyrics were always clever, and sometimes more.

The cleverness was in glib abundance on “Trashy Women” (covered by Walker on his new single) and “Something to Shoot,” a tongue-in-cheek rhapsody to the hunter’s mentality: “I don’t care about money, don’t care about the loot / Give me Jack Daniel’s whiskey and something to shoot.”


That his insights can run deeper was clear on “He Lives My Dream,” a yearning ballad in which a musician looks on Joe Nine-to-Five with envy, claiming, “I’d trade one Sunday dinner, for all the fame and glitter I’ve seen.”