Review: Billy Joe Shaver shines during 75th birthday party at the Satellite

Outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver performs on his 75th birthday at the Satellite in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Gamblers who wagered that Texas singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver would be buried, incarcerated or straitjacketed before he’d hit his 75th birthday had to pay up Saturday night.

Not only were the singer’s arms unbound, but so was his effervescent spirit throughout a hard-earned set of electrified twang at the Satellite in Silver Lake. The renegade raconteur, who rose as part of the 1970s “outlaw country” movement that propelled the careers of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and others, was in peak form on his diamond anniversary.

As if to prove a point, he flapped his arms like they were eagle wings. Elsewhere, he punched at the air like a prizefighter. He took off his cowboy hat (black), feigned a pistol blast. During his biographical “Wacko From Waco,” about shooting a man in the face in 2007, Shaver sang the chorus with his hat on sideways.

“Hit me when I’m not looking, so it won’t hurt,” he said before another song, laughing. And: “It ain’t what goes into your mouth that defiles you but what comes out.” He shouted out comedian Norm MacDonald by way of introducing “The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time.” (MacDonald answered back.) Shaver introduced “That’s What She Said Last Night” as “the worst song I ever wrote.”


Such was Shaver’s 75th, celebrated in front of a posse of fans drawn to his hardscrabble songs about bad love, heavenly Texas, red hot mamas, divorce, divorce and divorce. (He married and divorced the same woman three times, which “made her the dumb-ass, not me,” he explained.)

In town to support his solid, simply adorned new album, “Long in the Tooth,” Shaver was typically sharp and charismatic, a born stage-dweller leading his own party. Waving at the smartphones snapping photos, he complained that the L.A. paparazzi were driving him crazy.

“Just remember, it’s my birthday, so I can be half-assed if I want to,” he said by way of warning. He goodnaturedly berated his new guitarist, apparently on his third gig with the band, even as he celebrated him: “Three times down and you drown,” he said, then added, “Or is it, ‘Third time’s a charm’?”

And after the crowd sang him “Happy Birthday,” Shaver casually wiped away a few tears, took a slug of Red Bull and launched into “Try, Try Again,” in which he confessed to having “squandered all my money and lost my faithful wife.”

When he told a long story about eating a whole sheet of LSD and then writing “Ragged Old Truck,” it was hard not to wonder whether he’d eaten some earlier that evening, so vibrant was his demeanor. (For the record: He hadn’t.)

Absolutely magnetic and filled with a joy of life that he earned the hard way -- heart attack, breakups, the deaths of his wife and son, indictment in a murder (and eventual acquittal) -- Shaver was more alive than most singers 50 years his junior.

“I’m just an old chunk of coal,” he said, introducing his song of the same name. As he delivered his next line, the power of the moment solidified. “But I’m gonna be a diamond someday.”

It’s a song about resilience in the face of adversity, and Shaver promised he’d be a new man: “I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough-edged self, till I get rid of every single flaw.”

Near the end, Shaver thanked the crowd for its good cheer: “You made a stray dog like me feel welcome tonight.”

Was Shaver flawless on his diamond birthday? Not exactly, but he certainly wasn’t half-assed. His shadow-boxed uppercuts never actually connected with any real-life chins, but his musical ones did. And despite all that wing flapping, the Texan never actually took flight; his minimalist, poetic lyrics certainly did.

The result was as enjoyable an evening as one could have without getting arrested.

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit