Chasing Willie Nelson – A Tribute (Stage 39, CKUA)
By Marc Horton
What to leave in? What to leave out?
In tracing the history of the remarkable and remarkably durable Willie Nelson, should you put in Hello Walls and leave out Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain?
And does San Antonio Rose, written and made famous by Willie’s idol Bob Wills, belong? Maybe One for the Road instead? And what about Whiskey River? Can you really leave that out? And Funny How Time Slips Away? And Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys?
For Andrea House, the playwright/actor/songwriter/tremendous singer who is the driving force behind this winner of a show, it must have been an embarrassment of riches.
Editing the career of the 83-year-old hit maker down to a much-too quick 80 minutes, while also acknowledging his influences – Hoagy Carmichael, Django Reinhardt, Bob Wills et al – would seem to be impossible.
Well, House did the impossible. Like this show itself and the incredibly tight five-piece band backing her up, the choices were flawless.
Chasing Willie Nelson isn’t really a play, nor is it a concert. It’s not a musical either, although there is plenty of great country music in it. Think of an old-timey radio show where stories butt up against songs and your hostess, House, is welcoming, knowledgeable, unpretentious, sweet. Add in a dream sequence, the ghost of Willie Nelson, played by Dana Anderson, and the ghost of Willie’s son Bob, played by Mat Busby, and you’ll understand at least part of the dazzling ingenuity that powers this outstanding production.
Best-of-show must go to House’s version of Stardust, the Hoagy Carmichael tune that headlined Nelson’s gazillion-selling album of the same name. With an arrangement by pianist Chris Andrew, we’re rewarded with a fine, new take on one of the best tunes in the Great American Songbook. House makes it completely her own.
Ditto for Crazy, the Willie Nelson song made into a classic by Patsy Cline. House’s version won’t make you forget Ms Cline, nor should it, but she makes you feel the ache of loving too much.
Kudos as well to House for including, Fire, one of her own songs, in the lineup. She’s up against some of the best here, and she’s not out of place.
– Marc Horton is the former film reviewer and books editor at the Edmonton Journal. The best concert he ever attended was at Clarke Stadium in 1979. It featured Willie Nelson and Leon Russell.