POP MUSIC REVIEW : Waylon Shows There’s Still Some Life in Tamed Outlaw : The country legend’s Crazy Horse set is relaxed, human-scaled and very personable but stretches out in several directions.
If an angel with a flaming sword came out of the sky, landed at a front table at the Crazy Horse Steak House and told Waylon Jennings, “Justify your existence!” chances are the grizzled country singer would have tried just a little harder than he did in his late show there Monday. The old Waylon, of course, just would have made a drunken grab for her.
It was at the Crazy Horse four years ago that Jennings first learned he had heart problems. Hospitalized with chest pains, ultimately undergoing bypass surgery, he tamed his epic abuses, he has said; the Outlaw movement founder is a new, more subdued brand of legend these days.
If there’s a downside to someone’s being a living legend, it’s that he sometimes coasts on that legend, not giving as dynamic a performance. But there is also an upside: By taking things easier, a living legend may seem less of a legend, but more living.
Such was the case Monday night. Jennings was hardly a juggernaut, bowling the audience over with the force of his delivery. Instead, his set was relaxed, human-scaled and very personable.
He did some of his old warhorses, including “Luckenbach, Texas” and “Mamma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” He and his six-piece band gave the tunes tight, marginally zestful readings. Jennings is a good deal older and more experienced than most of the members of his band (which now includes daughter Jennifer on keyboards and backup vocals) but they revealed a seasoned musicianship that made a natural setting for his deep, grainy vocals.
There may be no replacing Jennings’ old steel guitar player, the departed Ralph Mooney, but new steel man Robby Turner is quite a player in his own right, spinning long melodic lines with lightning speed and precision.
Rather than rehash most of the familiar hits he had done in his early show, Jennings stretched out in a couple of directions, performing some newer songs and a pair of Kris Kristofferson tunes he’d picked up on the Highwaymen tour (which featured both singers, along with Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash).
His take on “Me and Bobby McGee” didn’t particularly add any new dimension to the lyric. He gave Kristofferson’s classic ballad “Help Me Make It Through the Night” the same heavy rock-anthem arrangement that Kristofferson has applied in recent years, but Jennings’ vocal--even though keyed at the high end of his range--caught the song’s sad old ache, despite the swirling synthesizers.
Jennings’ self-deprecating recent hit “Wrong” was delivered with a loopy Latin feel. He may not drink anymore, but he sure still can drain a drinking song of all it has: The Highwaymen tune “Yabbadabbado (The King is Gone)” is a fine and twisted addition to the genre, relating the tale of a man who has “pulled me up a big old hunk of floor” and gone on a bender with an Elvis decanter and a Flintstones jelly jar.
The newest song in the set, due on an album this year, reminds us that there is a country between the coasts:
I’ve been from sea to shining sea
and from coast to coast.
Somewhere in the middle
is the land I love the most.
I ain’t California pretty, I can’t survive the Great White Way,
I’m too dumb for New York City and too ugly for L.A.
Jennings was joined by wife Jessi Colter for “Suspicious Minds” (which was a hit twice for them, once in 1970 and again in ‘76) and their usual cutesy spousal bickering routine on “Wild Side of Life/It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” But--stop the presses!--Colter didn’t sing her 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa,” as she has at every Jennings show for eons. Instead she sang her other 1975 hit, “What’s Happened to Blue Eyes?”
Though Jennings told a couple of stories about his cigar store Indian and his country compatriots, he wasn’t as voluble as he’s been on other occasions. He left most of the communication to the music, and the strongest moment came during the rarely performed 1975 hit “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” Jennings’ voice rolled out a lyric that sums up a character at once romantic and full of dreams, and shot through with faults and foibles. His openness in revealing both makes him one of country’s rarest talents.
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