Review: Willie Nelson Shines on a Reissue of Rare 1984 Show

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson Live at Budokan CD/DVD
(Sony Legacy)
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Nearly a dozen Willie Nelson live albums are already available, with many songs repeated, so it’s worth asking why we need another from the country icon.

The short answer is we don’t, but that doesn’t make this package, which captures a full 1984 concert, audio, and video at the titular Tokyo venue, any less enjoyable.

Once available on an out-of-print LaserDisc, and in that long-forgotten format only in Japan, Willie with his relatively stripped-down six-piece, featuring sister Bobbie on piano (who shines throughout), cranks out 27 tunes in about 90 minutes. As usual, Willie dispenses with pushing any of his recent releases of that time. There are no selections from his City of New Orleans or Angel Eyes albums, both of which were recorded that year. Rather he sticks to crowd-pleasing classics and a fair amount of the American songbook nuggets revived on his Stardust and Over the Rainbow collections.

Oddly, Nelson doesn’t perform some of his own well-loved works like “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Bloody Mary Morning,” or “Crazy.” Ultimately that’s not an issue because versions of those songs are widely obtainable, perhaps most noticeably on the Willie and Family Live collection (1978). What’s here is a professional, entertaining show displaying Willie’s ease with his band and audience, many of whom, in this case, don’t speak any English let alone have any ties to Texas.

There aren’t many surprises—“Whiskey River” kicks off and also closes the show, which Nelson does regularly—as evergreens like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “On the Road Again” are rolled out with well-oiled proficiency. But Willie is in terrific voice and spirits, the band plays with loosely tight precision, and everyone on stage seems to be enjoying themselves, even on material they have performed dozens if not hundreds of times.

To his credit, Willie features guitarist Jody Payne singing lead on the bluesy Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and sister Bobbie playing honky tonk instrumental “Down Yonder.” A mid-set clutch of three Kris Kristofferson compositions, which in retrospect might be a preview of his participation as one of the Highwaymen, slows the momentum. Willie consistently shines on his lead acoustic guitar Trigger, peeling off pithy, yet perfectly placed runs that enhance his obvious appreciation of the rousing reception he gets from the Japanese audience.

The foremost motive for casual Willie fans to add this to their collection is the associated video, one of his few long-form concerts available and the only one from this era.  Seeing him in action, with skillfully shot multi-camera footage, brings immediacy, especially to songs like the harrowing “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” that the audio just suggests.

That helps elevate this above the many other Willie live recordings, making it an essential purchase for anyone who has ever seen him at his peak, and certainly those who haven’t.        

Photo by Pamela Springsteen / Shock Ink


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