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Willie and Leon Know the Drill: Haul Out the Crowd-Pleasers

February 26, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — When Willie Nelson strode onto the Coach House stage for his early show with Leon Russell on Saturday night, his trademark beard was missing (clogging a drain in a motel room somewhere, perhaps?). Clean-shaven, his usually cherubic countenance looked surprisingly drawn and haggard. He looked every one of his 62 years. In fact, he looked more than a little like Granny Clampett.

Then there was Russell, who even his immediate family may have forgotten about since his early-'70s heyday. The signature white beard and long, flowing mane remain intact, but something has been added--an extra 50 pounds or so of girth and a pair of thick spectacles that now make the 54-year-old look like a shaggy Wilford Brimley.

People are to be forgiven for aging and changing, of course--it happens to the best of us. But for 50 bucks a ticket, Nelson and Russell owed it to their fans to do more than just come off like bored, hoary geezers going through the motions on the old front porch.

Longtime friends who played their first-ever live dates together two months ago at the Coach House, Nelson and Russell were back for a series of six shows Friday through Sunday (they wrap up their stay in O.C. tonight at the Galaxy in Santa Ana). Some of the other shows may have been inspired (their first show in December gathered largely positive reviews), but at this one, precious little spark was on display.

The two sat expressionless, trading ditties as if it were a chore. There was no stage patter except for the occasional "Thank you," and no smiles of musical connection; they never even got up enough energy to get up off their stools.

To their credit, they may have had it a little more together--at least on a technical level--than they did for their shows in December, when they failed to perform many of their signature tunes and reportedly made a few awkward musical gaffes.

Their sounds complemented each other this time, as Nelson noodled away on his sweet-sounding, ancient Martin gut-string guitar while Russell pounded at a digital piano/synthesizer.

And who could have asked for a more generous helping of crowd-pleasers in one 70-minute show? Nelson crooned such familiar tunes as "Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life," "On the Road Again," "You Were Always on My Mind" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Russell, in his Dr. John-sound-alike rasp, sang such hits as "Hummingbird," "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "A Song for You."

A well-chosen selection of covers included "Truck Driving Man," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "I Saw the Light" and "Georgia on My Mind" (all sung by Nelson) and "Cajun Love Song," "Waltz Across Texas," "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" by Russell.

It was a pleasant show in its laid-back fashion, as intimate as a Sunday sing-along, and the folks in the sold-out house seemed to appreciate their heroes' efforts. But stimulating it definitely was not.

The show was opened by former Stray Cat bassist/current Big Blue front man Lee Rocker, accompanied by Devin Powers, an exquisitely gifted guitarist who worked small miracles on an acoustic 12-string (eliciting fond recollections of such rockabilly wizards as Cliff Gallup and Joe Maphis) and who made an ordinary Stratocaster sound like Buddy Emmons' pedal steel.

Rocker and Powers were joined for a few songs by Willie Nelson's fetching daughter, Paula, who as a singer is, well, very easy to look at.

Willie Nelson and Leon Russell sing tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 7 and 9:30 p.m. $50. (714) 957-0600.

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