When Willie Nelson Played Budokan

A new archival release chronicles a fascinating 1984 show at the famed Tokyo arena

Willie Nelson Live at Budokan (Image: PBS)

In 1978, the Budokan martial arts arena became synonymous with the rockers Cheap Trick and their album Cheap Trick at Budokan.

Between The Beatles’ first appearance there in 1966 until the mid-21st century, though, the Tokyo venue hosted hundreds of musical acts from ABBA and Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan and Duran Duran.

On February 23, 1984, Willie Nelson took the stage with his ensemble—Bobbie Nelson on piano, Paul English on drums, Grady Martin on guitar, Jody Payne on vocals and guitar, Bee Spears on bass, and Mickey Raphael on harmonica—for a dynamic set that featured songs from Nelson’s then-recent albums.

At the time a live album was not released in the U.S. and footage of the performance was available only as a LaserDisc in Japan, but that disc has long been out of print. Live at Budokan is available now as a 2CD/1DVD set or as a 2LP set that was released on Record Store Day in November. In some markets, the concert premiered on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Produced by Mickey Raphael, the album showcases Nelson performing at the top of his game, tearing into up tempo numbers such as “Whiskey River” and evoking the emotional turmoil through the languorous treatment of songs such as “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain.” On the latter, Raphael’s harmonica weaves around Nelson’s gently plucked guitar notes and his warm, but gruff vocals.

After a brief introduction—“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen; my name is Willie Nelson; is everybody alright?”—Nelson kicks off the show with a frenetic version of “Whiskey River,” setting the tone for the rest of the evening. On the instrumental bridge the song gets away from him, though, and he and the band appear to be playing in different tempos, though they finally get back together for the last part of the song.

Willie Nelson Live at Budokan, Legacy Recordings 2022

The crowd is with him the entire way, though, and they applaud enthusiastically at the song’s close. He follows up with his version of “Mona Lisa,” his captivating take on the American pop standard. Chugging along like a locomotive, Nelson and band deliver a steaming version of his and Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman”; this live version features Bobbie’s inspired honky-tonk piano runs and Raphael’s scalding harp work. After the instrumental bridge, though, the band hurries through the song, almost as if the steam locomotive has turned into a bullet train.

Nelson strings together three Kris Kristofferson songs together in the middle of the first LP: “Help Me Make It through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again”). On “Help Me Make It through the Night” and “Loving Her Was Easier,” Nelson proves himself to be an excellent song interpreter and one can imagine him enchanting the crowd with vocals that evoke the tenderness in the songs. He’s less successful with “Me and Bobby McGee,” for he opens the song with a jumbled mess of guitar notes that hang in the air like an unraveled quilt and then launches into an off-key and off-tempo vocal. The crowd never seems to mind, though. The first LP closes with his signature arrangement of “Under the Double Eagle,” a raucous instrumental, and a warm rendering of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”

The second LP opens with a spare, bluesy version of  “My Heroes have Always Been Cowboys,” though the tempo is more hurried than the studio version, which slides into another Nelson cowboy classic, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys,” which is also rushed. Nelson and crew charge straight-ahead through “On the Road Again,” as if they’re ready to get off the stage, back on the bus, and out on the road. Grady Martin’s guitar provides the perfect complement to Nelson’s own more bass heavy licks.

 

VIDEO: Willie Nelson “Stardust”

The band launches into a fast and furious “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” leaving nobody time enough to grieve or to feel sad about death; the band’s version gives every musician a chance to stretch out on the instrumental bridge, with Bobbie’s fleet fingers flying along the piano keys and Martin’s fingers running the frets on his guitar solo; it’s the final song of the evening before the encores. Nelson’s somber version of Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Can Gain Control Again” captures the aching despair of the song, and during the encores he reprises “Whiskey River.” The last song of the show is a hopping, rough and ready “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.”

Any live album is uneven, and this one is no different. Nelson and crew rush through many of the songs as if they’re ready to move on to the bus and to the next show. What stands out are Nelson’s strong and sure vocals, and his ability to get inside a song and make it his own. Willie Live at Budokan is a snapshot of Nelson coming into his own as a performer and taking his earliest steps to gaining an international audience.

For anyone unfamiliar with Nelson, this album offers a terrific introduction to the range of his music and his musicianship. Nelson fans, of course, will want it to complete their record collection.

 

 

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Henry Carrigan

Henry Carrigan is a musician and music journalist who writes for No Depression, Living Blues, Folk Alley, Bluegrass Situation; he has written for several newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's the author of a book on gospel music, Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life (Paraclete Press).

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