Billy Joe Shaver at Discovery Green, 5/30/2013
As the saying goes, Billy Joe Shaver is the kind of character who, if he didn't already exist, someone would have had to make him up. Was that Larry McMurtry? Kinky Friedman? Willie Nelson?
Doesn't matter, really. Shaver, the old five and dimer 73 years young, makes his songs sound like legends that happen to be entirely true. He's created a catalog studded with nuggets of both incredible tenderness and high hilarity, and onstage comes off almost savant-like with his country-store wisdom and off-color remarks.
Looking svelte and sounding salty, Thursday Shaver thoroughly entertained one of the biggest Discovery Green crowds thus far in the UH-Downtown-sponsored current concert series simply by being himself. Even when he walked offstage during "Thunderbird," it was funny. He wasn't mad, just taking a breather, and his drummer grabbed a tabla from behind his kit and broke into a solo that sounded like it might go on forever, or long enough for Shaver's guitarist and bassist to enjoy a beer and a smoke anyway.
Shaver's set was about evenly split between full-on honky-tonk rock and roll, and acoustic-laced songs that could raise a tear in the eye of an old cigar-store Indian. Tunes like "Georgia On a Fast Train" (with another drum solo, just not on tabla), "Black Rose," and "Hottest Thing In Town" were full of sassy electric guitar evoking vintage outlaw swagger. But the reverent, humble man who has been through "nine kinds of hell" (that's "Ride Me Down Easy") surfaced in tender songs like "When Fallen Angels Fly," which sounded so much like Willie you could almost hear Mickey Raphael's harmonica.
But in some ways, the songs are incidental to the stories Shaver tells between them. They can be poigniant and nearly rip your heart out, like when he talked about his late son Eddy - once his bandmate and a guitarist some said was on par with Stevie Ray Vaughan - overdosed on heroin, so now he tells people he sees going down that road, "You gotta be tough."
Or they could be hilarious, as when he recounted the events that led to the song "Whacko From Waco" and its lyric "Shot a man in the face/ But I can't talk much about it." Every time he sings it, I can't help but imagine Shaver's lawyer in a conference room somewhere, sobbing.