Toward the end of last night’s nearly two-hour concert at the Beachland Ballroom, 74-year-old country singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver pulled back his blue denim shirt and tightened the belt on his worn jeans. He slowly sauntered up the microphone, adjusted his brown cowboy hat and slowly whispered “irresistible.” The moment provided a nice encapsulation of Shaver’s charm. The guy has experienced his share of hardship (his son died of a heroine overdose in 2000 and he had a heart attack on stage a year later), but he’s kept on ticking. And then some. In fact, his forthcoming album, Long in the Tooth, is one of his best yet and features two songs — “Hard to Be an Outlaw” and “The Git Go” — that Willie Nelson recorded on his new album. Shaver played both those tunes during his terrific set that showed just how vibrant his new material is and just how classic his old songs still are.
Shaver started the show with an apology. He’s apparently just had knee surgery and he said he wouldn’t be doing the usual acrobatic movements on stage. His forthrightness and humor immediately endeared him to the audience — the attentive, appreciative crowd only filled about a third of the Beachland Ballroom. And when he launched into classic tracks such as “Fast Train to Georgia” and “Honky Tonk Heroes,” the latter of which was preceded by an entertaining story about how the concept for the tune came to him when he was 8 years old as he sat at a bar with his mother, he had the crowd hooting and hollering in unison. For “Wacko from Waco,” a song about a shooting incident from a couple of years back, he related the story of how a bar fight spilled outside and he had to shoot a man “between the mother and the fucker” in self-defense.
Many of Shaver’s stories are ones he’s told before but he has so much personality, they never became tedious. While Shaver struggled a bit to hit the high notes in “Fallen Angels Fly,” a ballad he delivered dramatically with his arms outstretched, his grumbling voice seemed to get stronger as the set went on. He delivered “The Git Go” as a haunting ballad and snarled his way through “Hottest Thing in Town.” The set closer “Try and Try Again” had a familiar old school country cadence and came off as a beautiful ballad from a man who clearly still loves performing live. While he couldn’t be ushered back for an encore, that was simply because he’d already made his way to the lobby to sign autographs and meet fans on their way out of the show.