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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Waylon Jennings Hits a Couple of Really High Notes

June 21, 1989|JIM WASHBURN

Among the more delightful aspects of Waylon Jennings' opening show at the Crazy Horse Steak House on Monday (he was also scheduled for two shows Tuesday evening) was just seeing the big guy on stage, being pretty much his old self. The last time he appeared at the club, the previous October, Jennings never made it past his first show, due to the onset of heart troubles that culminated in triple-bypass surgery last December.

But the easygoing atmosphere projected by Jennings, and by another recent bypassee, Ralph Mooney (the ever-beatific Buddha of the steel guitar), suggested that heart surgery can be one hell of a good time.

Indeed, that was the gist of several of Jennings' between-song anecdotes. By his recollection, he had the surgery only because Mooney is his hero, "so if he was getting one, I figured I would." His friend Johnny Cash then followed him into the operating room, because, Jennings said, "He figured that if ol' Waylon was doing it, there must be some free dope in there somewhere." Willie Nelson would have submitted as well, Jennings continued, "but he got drunk and couldn't find the hospital."

Jennings may be at a point where his monologues carry as much life as his music, and considerably more freshness. Although he claimed recently that he has recovered from his operation "to beyond full steam," that added zest has yet to make it into his music. Monday's early show was little more than a continuation of the set that he has been doing on tour for years now.

It should be stressed that said show carries a modicum of wonderfulness that bears seeing several times, both for the traveled splendor of Jennings' baritone voice and the honky-tonk grace of the Mooney-led Waylors. But, instead of singing about being an outlaw for the 2,000th time, Jennings is selling his talents short by not being a bit more of an outlaw in his performance.

Aside from when he toured the autobiographical "A Man Called Hoss" album in 1987, Jennings has rarely allowed his most affecting songs into his stage show. He wouldn't even have to reach far into his deep repertoire to find gems such as the heart-rending "A Love Song (I Can't Sing Anymore)," the introspective "Turn It All Around," or Johnnie MacRae and Steve Clark's "Which Way Do I Go (Now That I'm Gone)."

Instead he gave his audience a sane rendition of "I've Always Been Crazy" and other outlaw anthems, where he understandably sounded just a bit bored. And it is starting to appear that Jennings' wife Jessi Colter's considerable talents are going to be relegated to singing "I'm Not Lisa" and "Suspicious Minds" in his show for the rest of her career.

It's no wonder that the songs were sometimes overshadowed by the clowning, particularly when the weathered Jennings stood his "cuter than a truckload of ducks" wife next to him and asked the audience, "You tell us, who does it look like the marriage has been roughest on?"

But as is usually the case, there were a couple of songs that pointed to what a Jennings show can be. His "America" was a lovely, wistful rumination on his country, on what it is and the honesty and equality it should stand for. The show's most poignant moment came on his version of Willie Nelson's lovely "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way," prefaced with a humorous but touching account of how he is now seeing the other side of his wild ways when his daughters bring a boyfriend to the house: "They say, 'Mr. Jennings, I respect your daughter,' and that makes me mad, because he figures I'm too old to know what he's thinking, and what he's thinking with."

The feeling and understanding that Jennings' vocal showed for Nelson's lyric--about a father accepting change--hit on the honesty and directness that is country's great strength, and is Jennings', when he lets it into his show.

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