NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published December 11, 2010
"Willie Nelson in Mountain Home, Arkansas ?"
Well, the Willie Nelson concert on December 9th here was not only a success for the promoters but a real first for our fair city. Until we got the brand new Vada Sheid Community Development Center, Mountain Home did not have a venue large (and nice) enough to accommodate a major entertainment star of Willie's caliber. It is a first rate concert facility, especially considering the size of our community. To get this venue along with the new Reynolds Library in the same year is a real shot in the arm for Baxter County.
As we were driving onto the campus searching for a parking space it dawned on me that as large as this campus appears, parking space becomes a premium issue for a major event. The firework show in July turns ASU into a major parking problem, and this concert was no different. The seemingly ample parking available completely disappears when something big like this happens on campus. We pulled in about twenty minutes before curtain call and met with cars dashing through filled lots at 30 MPH. Late arrivals were pulling up on the lawn and anywhere else they could find where they would not be blocking parked cars. We found one last little spot along a curb and squeezed into its small space, and practically had to run up the hill to the Sheid center.
As for the show itself, it went off without a hitch. Since the venue still doesn't have their own sound and light package (both VERY expensive items), the support gear was hired out. Some soundproofing has been installed since the last major event at the Sheid CDC, which soaked much of the lower frequency fluttering. At least the vocals did not ping back to the stage this time. Of course having a sold out show and full house helped tremendously in soaking up flying frequencies.
Because the venue was designed with multiple applications in mind, the back half of the venue is a flat floor surface. From mid-hall forward it is all permanent seating on a slanted floor, like a movie theater. Ticket holders in the very back of the room not only get the worst sound but also the worst view, peering over the back row of front seating. Eventually the sound will be better in the rear, as more soundproofing and a permanent sound installation come to pass. However, not much can be done for the view, and facility Administrator Scott Hoffman installed two portable video screens at the rear of the venue. Their multi-camera switcher allowed an operator to show several close up shots of the stage for those in the back. A more permanent system will be installed in the future, according to Scott.
Okay… enough of the venue… it will be better in the future….
The show itself was fantastic. Ironically, I had just read an article in one of my music trade magazines (Mix Magazine) about the "Secret Sisters", hailing from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The duo of Laura and Lydia Rogers were JUST discovered a couple of months ago at a talent audition. Before you could say "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" they had a CD in the can, produced by T Bone Burnett, Nashville heavyweight producer. Many established stars clamored to play on the Sisters album as the buzz washed through Nashville about this new sister singing sensation.
The Sisters did not disappoint the MH audience. Their music, which harkens back to a simpler time, fell right in line with the sentiments of our community. Their short set was received enthusiastically. No one shouted for "Willie!" during the girl's set. They received a standing ovation at the end of their performance.
When Willie came out the entire audience stood and cheered as if he was our favorite son. I think it surprised him a little. I will say right here I am not a devout Willie fan. My mom loved him and I still have a dozen 8 track tapes (!) of hers in her "Willie Collection" But when the man himself strode out I must admit I got caught up in the moment and stood and cheered with the rest of the fans.
His band was comprised of his sister on grand piano, a bass player , a drummer, and a harp (harmonica) player. The "drum kit", such as it was… was ONLY a snare drum! No kick drum. No cymbals. No high hat. The drummer played only with one side stick and a brush. The harp player was a real pro. He could make his harp sound just like an accordion. Although the bad was tight, they played only a supporting role for Willie and his now famous beat up guitar. At the afternoon set up, I was visiting with agent Dennis Stone and we got to get a close up birds eye lowdown on the stage set up. I went over and looked closely at Willie's guitar amps. He had two ancient Baldwin guitar amplifiers that I had never seen before. After the concert I did a little research and found out a lot about that amp.
Willie started out and in a non-stop performance swept through two-minute versions of his hits. And what a string of hits it is! I never stopped to realize just how many hit songs he produced. But when you heard it in 2-minute song bites it really dawns on one how much music this mild-mannered gentlemen has produced through the years. It was non-stop… one at a time… song after song… and with each new chorus the audience cheered and sang along. Jane, sitting next to me, could sing EVERY song he played.
I can see why some musicians, who cannot see past Willie's obvious distain for "music models" or style, would tend to report that the performance was "okay" or "left something to be desired". Willie has his own style. He rushes progressions, comes down on the "1" before the previous "2" has even been played, or waits an entire measure before picking it up again. If a band attempted to keep up with his "Russian dragon" playing technique, the entire band would get lost. I believe this is why there is no bass drum, because the kick usually accents the downbeat. With no distinct downbeat, the audience does not a have an anchor to feel the beat. The bass player fills the function of the downbeat, but that is a note, NOT a percussive "hit". The bass player and the drummer play STRAIGHT time on the arrangements. That means if Willie comes in too soon or too late on his guitar, HE is the one that has to catch up (or wait) for the beat to come around to pick it all up again. This approach is very successful, and the audience has no clue what is going on musically on the stage. The piano and the harp is the "icing" on the cake, filling in the void around the song and giving the impression that the arrangement is not sliding around following Willie's mood.
For two hours this 77-year old man held court, running through one hit song after another in one seamless performance which kept the Mountain Home audience on the edge of their seats. He spoke little between songs, but in one of his hits where he sings about getting busted in a Texas city, he changed name of the town to Sierra Blanca, where he was recently busted on November 27th. The crowd got it and applauded their support for this man who has done so much for America and still got busted in an obvious showboating stunt by a local law enforcement person. Nelson, a staunch advocate of decriminalization of marijuana, has had his share of drug-related brushes with the law, and I saw one comment on Facebook where someone said "I'd be surprised if NO marijuana was found on his bus!" He has since become the poster child for the Teapot Party which is gathering speed in every state of the union.
The entire concert was uneventful (I imagine the ASU administration breathed a heavy sigh upon watching his bus disappear in the night) and the sound and lighting was very professional. However, something unusual did occur at the end of the concert. We were told earlier that Willie has of late been less accessible to his fans. He is surrounded by his security people & does not do the hand shaking or autograph signing as he did in the past. The reason given was that the production team was worried about him getting sick at his age. If you shake that many hands you are sure to come in contact with a lot of germs. I noticed that just before his set, a roadie came out on stage and wiped down the mics and sprayed Lysol all over the rug Willie would stand on. It is a very real concern.
Well, at our concert he seemed to have a change of heart, and at the end of the last song (when he leaves the stage while the band continues to play) he walked straight out to front stage and began shaking hands! His security crew was taken by surprise at his action and ran out to keep crowd control. He started working his way across the front to stage right, signing autographs and shaking hands. He signed boots, tennis shoes, hats, CD's, posters, ticket stubs, T-shirts, and bras. Whatever was offered up he dutifully took the item and signed it. It was unbelievable and the crowd responded like there was a fire. Hundreds of people crowded the stage as he worked his way back to stage left. He even paused for a couple of newspaper PR shots with Chancellor Ed Coulter and other local dignitaries before finally leaving the stage THIRTY MINUTES LATER. The entire time the band continued to softly play in the background. After running out of music they began playing Christmas songs while Willie smiled and shook hands. The audience could tell this was an unusual occurrence and acted on his generosity. There were still people thrusting objects at him when he finally tore himself away, obviously worn out, and made his way back stage to the waiting tour bus.
If I was going to be a critic I'd mention a couple of bloopers by the sound engineer. In the Secret Sisters set, Laura Rogers was more aggressive on her microphone, while Lydia prefers to sing a bit softer and back a few more inches on her mic. The resulting mix was off center for their entire performance. If the mix engineer was on his toes he should have noticed it right away and gently brought back the gain on Laura. The harmony blend would have been much sweeter to the audience's ears, making for a more pleasant and successful set for the Sisters. While I got to meet them after the show I neglected to mention this to them for several reasons. One, I didn't want to spoil the vibe the obviously were enjoying, and two… they didn't know me from Adam and I am sure the suggestion would have gone in one ear and out the other. If they tour more with Willie's engineer though, they should bring this to his attention for future shows. Their entire stage persona could be greatly enhanced if their vocal mix was better. The songs they sing DEMAND a perfect blend on their voices, which is, after all, their bread and butter.
On Willie's set I noticed an annoying tendency for the PA to ring at around the 500-800 Hz range. Feedback did not actually occur but on several occasions it was right on the edge of getting out of control. Toward the end of his set it got worse as they were probably bringing up the volume a little more. I believe it was due to some chords that Willie would strike on the guitar. His guitar was as loud in the mix as his vocals, and whenever he took a vicious swipe at the instrument the PA would resound with an obnoxious ring. That could have been controlled more. But overall, the mix was very good. However, I must point out that I was in the 8th row back from the stage so the sound was very even. I imagine back in the "nose bleed" section of the house it probably sounded a bit more muffled due to the low end bouncing around back there.
Still, it WAS Willie Nelson playing in Mountain Home, Arkansas. That of itself is kind of a historical moment. If you'd have told me Willie would be playing in Mountain Home even five years ago I would have laughed out loud. Credit and kudos must be given to ASU for designing and constructing such a beautiful and functional venue as a welcome addition for our community…... And my personal thanks to the Vada Sheid Family for making this dream into a reality.
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