At 73, Billy Joe Shaver is some combination of Pentecostal showman and hard-country poet, a foot-stomping, gesticulating good ol’ boy who’ll devastate you with a knowing turn of phrase as surely as he’ll get you dancing in the aisles to the bawdy, unsubtle “That’s What She Said Last Night.” His secret, Shaver will tell you, is that he writes great songs. That much is hard to argue. “You Asked Me To,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and “Live Forever” are country classics and live show staples.
The songs are just part of the equation, though. The other part is that the honesty in his songs is the honesty in his person and the spirit he embodies when he takes the stage. Nobody connects with an audience better simply by being a true, unapologetic version of himself than Billy Joe Shaver.
Last Friday night at the Palms Playhouse in Winters, CA, Shaver took the stage with a Walmart bag full of cold supplies on his arm. Its purpose became clear several songs in, when he complained of a nose that wouldn’t quit running and began searching himself for Kleenex or a handkerchief. No luck in the plastic bag. No luck in his pockets. In search of any solution to his problem, he ultimately settled on blowing his nose right into the coat he’d shed on his way to the mic, to the semi-disgusted amusement of concertgoers.
No, he’s not much for putting on airs. When a kindly woman in the front row presented him with a pack of Kleenex, Shaver took one out and, turning it over slowly in his hand, quipped that it ‘looks so pretty it’s a shame to get it all messed up.’ With his discarded coat still laying at his feet.
He seemed more at ease with the handkerchief offered by another fan later in the show.
Such moments of off-the-cuff charm were plentiful, with Shaver seeming a bit out of sorts but no less dedicated to putting on a great show. Even as he apologized for his condition between songs, his voice and enthusiasm never faltered. Sick or not, he was bursting with spirit and poetry. If his guitarist needs a few spare moments to retune, Shaver will sooner burst into a spontaneous a cappella rendition of “Son of Calvary” than leave the audience hanging. When he’s onstage, he’s on. Period.
Beyond the expected hits and live staples, Shaver made an unlikely showpiece of 1981 album cut “Ragged Old Truck,” which he presented with a hilarious, meandering introduction twice as long as the song itself. The backstory added greatly to the song’s reception, with the line “So before that ol’ heifer drives back in from Waco, you can bet your sweet ass I’ll be gone” getting one of the bigger laughs of the night. That this story and song appear on none of his four live albums suggests that someone should be following him around with a tape rig at all times. He’s got a few more left in him.
Shaver’s band – guitarist Jeremy Woodall, drummer Jason Lynn McKenzie, and bassist Matt Davis – proved a force to be reckoned with, morphing from ripping electric rock band to snappy country-folk ensemble and back again as the songwriter’s wide-ranging material demanded. Woodall soloed tastefully throughout, while McKenzie earned big applause with an inventive drum solo on “When the Word Was Thunderbird.”
By the time they followed “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” with “The Road” to end the night, two hours had passed. Shaver was still game to sign stuff at the merchandise table, but he advised folks keep their distance lest they catch his cold. Sure. Undeterred, fans swarmed in for hugs and autographs. How many opportunities do you get to catch a cold from one of America’s greatest living songwriters, anyway?
Incidentally, Shaver appeared with the same band featured on his recent Live at Billy Bob’s CD/DVD set. For those who haven’t seen Shaver in person yet, or have and would like to be able to relive the experience, the set is highly recommended. If the existence of three previous live albums points to the fact that something special – and something especially worth capturing – happens when he takes the stage, Billy Bob’s might be the first to actually capture it. It’s also the only complete Shaver live album recorded this millennium, a period that has seen him rebuilding spiritually and casting himself upon the music more completely than ever. I could do without some of the talking heads between songs (DVD only), but the musical content is about as close as you’ll get to being there in the flesh for a latter-day Shaver show. An important document of an important talent, and one you’ll return to again and again.