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Music DVD Review: The Willie Nelson Special with Special Guest Ray Charles

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Written by Fantasma el Rey

The Willie Nelson Special is an hour of Willie at the top of his game in 1985, singing the songs that made him famous and loved by fans around the world. His stage show has no frills or popping pyrotechnics. It’s just 60 minutes of Willie in an intimate setting, making him seem even more down to earth as he presents classic country as it should be, stripped down, focusing on the music and its performers.

The show opens with the rollin’ jump of “On The Road Again” played for a minute over the opening titles and some scenes of Willie and the boys goofing around, playing golf, and shooting pool. Willie and his band are in a quiet, sit-down bar or a very small club and on a low-rise stage putting them right next to their fans. The venue is small and perfect for this type of show, providing good interaction between fan and artist. These are the kind of places I like best; they make it seem as though the show is just for you and the band is approachable, which most times they are. This makes the next selection perfect as Willie slows the show with the beautiful “Always On My Mind” and shows off his quiet Texas crooner vocals on a tune I’ve always loved.

From there the legendary Ray Charles steps up to the piano and shares the spotlight with his friend Willie. Ray opens with a little jam they’ve titled “Ray’s Improvisation,” a good little piece of jazz, and slides right into the slow duets of “Angel Eyes,” “Seven Spanish Angels,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and a tune that hit big for Ray, “Georgia On My Mind.” Closing the duets with Ray, Willie picks up his guitar and the two begin to cut lose on a swingin’ version of the country/bluegrass staple “Mountain Dew.” Willie’s band picks up the pace as Ray lets his fingers fly on the ivories as the two stars reel and rock their way through; both having fun with it.

The Willie and Ray segment is highlighted by a couple of flashes back to rehearsals the night before where it’s just the band, Willie, and Ray working on songs they plan to do. Its fun to see them laughing, having a good time, and really connecting with each other. Willie’s intro of Ray to the stage on show night is awesome as Willie makes a blind joke that really has Ray laughing and showing his wonderful sense of humor. A great segment and one that I’m glad was caught.

Willie then brings up guitarist Jackie King to help him out on the western swing ditty “My Window Faces The South,” which also features fiddle great Johnny Gimble in the background doing what he does best and making the cowboy jazz tune truly pop. The two then slow down a bit and move to the more solid jazz of “There Will Never Be Another You.”

After the two songs with King, Willie takes the spotlight again and croons three nice, slow tunes with “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” “Without A Song,” and “Who’ll Buy My Memories.” The highlight here is one of my favorites: “To All The Girls,” a big hit for Willie and his duet partner Julio Iglesias. Willie even opens the second verse with a playful poke at Julio’s accent, jokingly claiming it was all him on the record. Another look at the playful side of the redheaded stranger.

Closing the show is another of Willie’s up-tempo numbers, fan-favorite “Whiskey River.” Willie and his band close strong with this one and provide a perfect bookend to the night, reminding us that even though they can groove slow they love to rock. As the song plays, we get a three-minute tour of Willie’s hometown, Abbott, Texas. It’s an interesting little look at some of the places, people, and friends who remember the young Willie, his adventures, and his deeds as well as his family.

“The Willie Nelson Special” is a solid hour of Willie doing what he loves and is best at: singing his heart out on slow numbers and raucous country stompers. It’s a good sample of what a Willie show is like in a close and cozy setting, one on one with his fans who will no doubt appreciate this DVD the most. The casual fan will have a good time too as there are some of Willie’s major hits on hand and presented with feeling and warmth that only some one with a great passion for what they do can bring. Bottom line: Shotgun Willie at his best!

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