Review: Willie Nelson takes Jazzfest show on the upswing

Willie Nelson strolled into the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival with his Family band, building from a country shuffle to an outlaw boogie, to the delight of the throngs of fans packed into Confederation Park.

Willie Nelson, Kellylee Evans

Confederation Park

Friday

Willie Nelson strolled into the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival with his Family band, building from a country shuffle to an outlaw boogie, to the delight of the throngs of fans packed into Confederation Park.

In his trademark braids and bandana, the coolest 80 year old on the planet was in great shape as his strummed his battered acoustic guitar and sang in a robust, earthy voice that wasn’t the least bit frail — once he got warmed up.

He kicked off with a rambling Whiskey River, his band members hustling to find their boss’s groove, but crowd-pleasers like Whiskey for my Men, Beer for My Horses and Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To be Cowboys kept the crowd entertained while the band members clicked into place.

Nelson’s latest album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, is a collection of tunes that Nelson and his sister Bobbie have played all their lives. Bobbie was beside him onstage, seated at the grand piano, along with bassist Kevin Smith, drummer Paul English, multi-instrumentalist Billy English and the amazingly talented Mickey Raphael on harmonica.

The show took a definite upswing with the old Tom T Hall tune, I’m a Shoeshine Man, featuring a wicked harp solo, and slid into a Southern frame of mind with songs like Jambalaya (On the Bayou), Hey Good Lookin and Georgia on My Mind.

Of course, no Willie show is complete without his signature song, On The Road Again, and he delivered a frisky version of it as part of the final stretch of songs.

Being hit by lightning hasn’t dampened the spirited stage presence of Kellylee Evans. The Ottawa-area jazz singer was struck by a stray bolt while barefoot in her kitchen, hands in the sink, about three weeks ago.

Ottawa singer Kellylee Evans. Photo by Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen.

Her mobility was affected, but lucky for her, she can still sing, as we saw during her opening set on the jazz festival’s big stage Friday. Perched on a tall stool, her feet resting on a gear box, Evans bubbled with her usual enthusiasm, even laughing at her recent mishap. She wanted to keep it quiet at first, she said, convinced she must have missed a science class where everyone else learned the hazards of tidying the kitchen during a lightning storm.Normally Evans would be dancing through her performance, especially with the hiphop-inspired material from her latest album, I Remember When. The restraint must have been frustrating but it didn’t dim her huge smile for a second. She giggled with the audience and goofed around with her talented band members. Perhaps the only hint of her recent trouble was reflected in the clipped, slightly awkward rhythm of her beatboxing-style vocal licks.Otherwise, her voice was ripe with emotion. My Name Is, her tribute to Eminem, percolated with a nice groove, while a tasty, slow-burning version of Ordinary People was dedicated to the fans who expressed concern and sent their love. Other highlights included One More Lover, inspired by the former Snoop Dogg, the uplifting Kanye West power ballad, Amazing, and a fiery take on Eminem’s Lose Yourself to close the set. In all, it was a terrific performance, remarkable even, considering the circumstances.

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