First things first: No, it's probably not true that the only stirrings in the aftermath of global thermonuclear war will be cockroaches and Willie Nelson singing "Whiskey River."
But it's difficult not to feel that way in the wake of yet another formulaic and uninspired concert such as the one Nelson turned in Sunday at the Pacific Amphitheatre.
Following his worthy efforts by organizing the recent Farm Aid benefit, it seems only fair that American farmers should return the favor by chipping in to buy Willie a new ballpoint pen so he can draw up a fresh set list.
When he mechanically sang "The life I love is making music with my friends" in what felt like the 10,000th performance of "On the Road Again," you had to wonder: If this is love, what's his idea of drudgery?
Apparently, somewhere in his contracts there must be a clause requiring every performance to begin with "Whiskey River" and continue unchanged with "Stay a Little Longer," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy," "Night Life," ad boredom, as it has for the last 10 years.
The truly criminal part is that Nelson, who has turned in some of the most expressive vocals in all of pop, has become so lax with his singing that he renders even his own songs lifeless. Even seemingly indestructible pop standards like "All of Me," with its seamless melody and poetic wordplay, and Hoagy Carmichael's haunting "Stardust" were tossed off so casually that they were drained of all charm.
Making the two-hour show even more frustrating than the sheer repetition of it all was the sight in the wings of Dick Cavett, veteran talk-show host to the intelligentsia. Cavett could have livened things up immeasurably by coming on stage and engaging Nelson in one of his insightful and witty interviews. Under the circumstances, however, any crew member could have perked up the show by performing hand shadows in the spotlight.
The generally lackluster backing from Nelson's seven-member band offered little consolation, with his sister Bobbie Nelson's piano tinkling as timid as ever and Paul English's drumming as punchless as an unwound metronome. Only harmonica player Mickey Raphael and guitarist Grady Martin delivered any sparks, but their contributions were limited to brief instrumental fills.
Just when it appeared that Nelson's performance would end with no redeeming musical quality whatsoever, he returned for an encore performance of "Seven Spanish Angels," the duet he recorded recently with Ray Charles, hinting that he is still capable of genuine emotion. But that bit of promise quickly vanished when he lapsed into a perfunctory reading of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans."
But wait a minute! Was Willie making a point with his apathetic stage manner? In an oblique way, was he commenting on the way that we as a society have come to accept--even expect--mediocrity in our cultural endeavors? Instead of being a talented singer who has sadly stopped caring about his craft, maybe Nelson has moved into the forefront of the performance art movement?