No Surf Music


No Surf Vinyl Essentials


The Lowdown:

Billy Joe Shaver

Based In:
Waco, TX


Americana, country, outlaw country, gospel


The Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, OH

Concert Date:
December 2, 2011

Opening Acts:


Related Articles:

Billy Joe Shaver performs at the Beachland Ballroom

Rating: 9 out of 10



December 9, 2011


Billy Joe Shaver: Beachland Ballroom, 12/2/11

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Billy Joe Shaver, despite his humble, down-home demeanor, is undoubtedly larger than life. Whether intentional or not, many of the forwardly Christian singer’s stage moves have a religious undertone, like this crucifix-evoking move. Photo by Jason D. ‘Diesel’ Hamad, No Surf Music.


One of these days, I’m gonna have to write myself a countrified version of Drive-By Truckers’ “Let There Be Rock.” You know, “Well I never saw Johnny Cash, but I sure saw Willie Nelson / From the front row in the desert at the first Stagecoach fest.” One man who definitely belongs on the list is Billy Joe Shaver, who appeared at the Beachland Ballroom, Friday, December 2nd. Billy Joe’s is not a household name like many of the people he’s worked with (and written songs for) over the years, like Cash, Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. But in the outlaw country community he’s a legend, and with good reason. Willie Nelson himself has called him the greatest songwriter alive today, and that ain’t just boasting on his friend. Shaver—a true-to-life country boy who quit school after 8th grade and who had to learn how to play guitar all over again after loosing two fingers while working at a lumber mill—writes some of the most true-to-life, profound songs ever penned. Forget whether or not you love Jesus… if you don’t think “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” is some of the best social commentary you’ve ever heard, go to hell.

Shaver may be best known as a writer (much like an early Dylan, many of his “hits” came via recordings made by other people), but he’s always been a stage performer, and his first album, the classic Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was released in 1973. At age 72, he may no longer be the hard-drinkin’ hell raiser of legend, but he’s no slouch on stage and the opportunity to see him perform was just too good to pass up. There’s just something about Billy Joe Shaver. It’s not only that he’s easily one of the greatest poets of the last century, or that he’s responsible for so many incredible songs. He’s got a flair, a swagger, like he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do and he ain’t gonna give two shits what anybody says. It’s evident in his comfort on stage, the way he casually tosses his hat onto his guitar neck in the middle of a song and it sticks every time. The man is just cool. That cool inevitably rubs off on anyone lucky enough to experience one of his shows in person.

California Speedbag guitarists/vocalists Brian Cox (right) and G. S. Harper rock out during their blazing, loud cowpunk set. Photo by Jason D. ‘Diesel’ Hamad, No Surf Music.

The night got started with local group California Speedbag, a hard-rocking cowpunk band with a long history on the Cleveland scene. The band features a pretty standard lineup—with two guitars, a bass and drums—but the exception comes in the form of Guy DiLullo, who plays a chest-mounted washboard and has a role similar to that of the Bosstone, bouncing around the stage and adding extra kinetic energy (in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed before the set). With the relatively low-key Shaver as the main act, it was a bit of a curious matchup, but the band often covers Shaver’s endlessly deep catalogue, so they are in spiritual if not sonic alignment. Besides, with their high-energy style, they’re often a crowd favorite, even if a few of the patrons waiting patiently for Billy Joe’s lighter stylings may have been a little bemused with their blazing guitar work, driving bass, and hard-hitting lyrics. Still, with songs like “Don’t Drink That Whiskey” and “Let’s Get Drunk” paradoxically leading the way, it was a pulse-pounding tour de force. While most of their songs flat-out rock, the band does occasionally switch into a dreamier mode, with one lick in particular reminiscent of “Sweet Child of Mine.” These moments are brief, however, and usually only preludes to more heavy rocking. It was a highly entertaining set and a good way to kick things off.

Shaver’s set, by contrast, involved much less bombast. In fact, it started with no ceremony whatsoever. Billy Joe just kind of wandered up on stage wearing a blue denim pearl snap shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a ragged old pair of jeans, weather beaten cowboy boots, and a brown felt Stetson with an oversized feather in the band. Without introduction, he just started talking about his very long list of injuries, surgeries, and how he doesn’t fly much anymore. It was like he’d already been deep in conversation with the entire audience and it was the most natural thing in the world. After completing the litany of shoulder surgeries, heart bypasses, etc. etc. he just sort of shrugged and said “Well, we usually start off with 'Georgia on a Fast Train,' so I guess that’s what we’ll do." With that, the band broke into the opening chords.

Now, for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with the tune, it is simply spectacular and long ago became Shaver’s trademark. One of his most personal compositions, it’s about a poor, undereducated country boy determined to be taken seriously in the world. The best lines come near the beginning of the song, and describe Shaver’s own life perfectly:

In contrast to the hard rocking of his opening act, Shaver’s set was more stately, even as he often whooped the crowd into a dance-happy fury. Photo by Jason D. ‘Diesel’ Hamad, No Surf Music.

And I just thought I’d mention
My grandma’s old-age pension
Is the reason why I’m standin’ here today.
I got all my country learnin’
Milkin’ and a’churnin’
Pickin’ cotton, raisin’ hell and bailin’ hay.

I been to Georgia on a fast train, honey.
I wasn’t born no yesterday.
Got a good Christian raisin’
And a eighth-grade education.
Ain’t no needin’ y’all are treatin’ me this way.

This live version featured a blazing solo courtesy of Jeremy Woodall, his longtime guitar player. One little quirk of Shaver’s shows is that he himself doesn’t play much guitar, largely due to his hand injury. He therefore leaves much of the instrumental work to his band. This leaves him a lot of downtime when he’s not singing, which he makes use of by dancing around the stage as spry as the day he was born. Taking off his hat and whooping it around, he turned the song into a pure hand-clapping hoedown.

Next up was another of Shaver’s oldest classics, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” first recorded by Waylon Jennings for the album of the same name. Billy Joe introduced it explaining how his musical education started when he “was just a little Shaver, about six” and he used to follow his momma to her job at a honky tonk.

After this walk down memory lane came one of Shaver’s bawdiest songs, “That’s What She Said Last Night,” complete with lots of laughing and dancing on the part of both the crowd and Billy Joe. Next up was “The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time,” with the cheeky follow up, “The second time I did it on my own.”

The few times Shaver does pick up the guitar during his set, he makes 'em count. He even looks the part of the cowboy troubadour. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

At this point, Shaver turned a little more serious as he prepared to sing a new song. “If they cross me, I’ll write a song about ‘em” was the introduction for “Wacko From Waco.” Although the song itself is light in tone, it tells Shaver’s side of the legend of how he shot a man in the face in a honky tonk parking lot in Lorena, Texas, in 2007 (when he was 68 years old). The incident has gained epic status in the country community, thanks in no small part to the tale being turned into a song by Dale Watson and made famous by Whitey Ford and the 78’s. The song, “Where Do You Want It,” is named for the line Shaver supposedly uttered just before shooting the man, but Billy Joe says it’s not so (more on that in our Burning River Fireside Chat). In fact, in the song and the intro, Shaver intimates a whole new view of the incident, saying that his nemesis actually had a gun and fired at him twice, but he couldn’t bring that fact into evidence at trial because the gun was never found. Regardless, the knife the man was carrying and Billy Joe’s testimony were enough to get him acquitted on grounds of self-defense. No matter whose story you believe (and I’m willing to bet on Billy Joe), “Wacko From Waco” is a fun, energetic song and a great reason to look forward to Shaver’s upcoming album.

Next up came one of Shaver’s many classic religious songs, “Old Chunk of Coal,” an obvious fan favorite that inspired plenty of people to dance in the aisles as the band rocked on.

One thing that sets Shaver apart is his ability to turn on a dime, from danceable beats to somber tones, from roughish to reverent and back again. It’s only natural with his extensive catalogue, and at this point in the show, he made one of these changes, picking up his little guitar for an acoustic number called “When Fallen Angels Fly.” It took the crowd a few moments to pick up on the new tone and quiet their drunken conversations, but once they took their seats and calmed down a bit, the powerfully emotional lyrics and sweet guitar solo from Jeremy had them enraptured. This was concluded with one of Shaver’s many on-stage religious appeals, as he said “It don’t matter what you wanna do, if you get Jesus in your heart, you’re gonna do it better. If you’re an asshole, you’re gonna be a better asshole.” Only he could mix religion and down-home country sense like that.

Keeping with the mellow tone, Shaver then sang an a cappella version of “Star in My Heart,” with the band respectfully turning their backs to the audience during the rendition. Taken together, the two songs provided a touching tribute to Shaver’s son and longtime collaborator Eddy, who died of a drug overdose in 2000, something that obviously still haunts the elder Shaver to this day.

I don’t care how long you’ve been at it, with moves like this you gotta be young at heart. Photo by Jason D. ‘Diesel’ Hamad, No Surf Music.

Eddy’s spirit was also alive in the next song, “Live Forever,” which he co-wrote with Billy Joe. The song, featured in the movie “Crazy Heart” in a version sung by Robert Duvall, has taken on new meaning for Shaver since his son’s passing (as he described in our interview), but to the crowd it was just plain awesome. The version played on stage was very mellow and lacked the Big & Rich flair of the original, but was sung with such a sense of truth that everyone in attendance was just plain mesmerized. In a night full of powerful songs, there’s little doubt that this one was a standout.

As if to top himself, Billy Joe then broke into “The Get Go,” a tremendous new song off of his forthcoming album. Shaver describes it as “real political,” saying, “I don’t usually do that, but it felt like I needed to.” With something of a dark, Mexican blues sound, it is full of biblical imagery and sets the little guy up against the world in a way few men can do as authentically. I’ll save more comments on the lyrics for when the album itself is released, but this much is for sure: the song is a fucking triumph, one of the greatest compositions from one of America’s greatest writers. He finished it off with a satisfied shrug, saying, “We all do what we can, ya know? You see something you don’t like, you gotta speak up. I do. Get knocked on the head sometimes, but I still do.”

Picking up the tempo again, the band then started into “Hottest Thing in Town,” featuring an awesome guitar solo. This was followed by “Honey Bee,” which was accompanied by a story about how when he was a kid, Billy Joe kissed a girl, got whupped by her father, and then watched as his grandmother dragged the man out into the street and beat him bloody. Gotta love them Texican women.

Billy Joe Shaver. Yeah, that's right. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

Now Shaver really did top himself with “When the Word Was Thunderbird,” a song that easily ranks among the coolest in the country canon. It’s got the smoothness of Steve McQueen on an Indian motorcycle with a hip flask bulging from his pocket. As if the song wasn’t powerful enough with its giant, ringing electric guitar and driving bass beat, it was made to serve as a vehicle for drummer Jason McKenzie. Now, outside of Rush concerts I’m not usually a fan of insane stand-on-your-head drum solos, but as the rest of the band left the stage McKenzie just took over and went completely catatonic. After a tubthumping eternity, Billy Joe and Co. returned for a glorious close to the night’s best cut.

This was followed by the flag-waver “Good Ol’ U.S.A.” with a lengthy, twangy acoustic guitar solo, and then a down-tempo, chill version of “Bottom Dollar.” This was followed up by “Woman Is the Wonder of the World,” and then “Love Is So Sweet.” Next came “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You,” accompanied by its usual story about how he once used the words that became the song’s lyrics to get his wife to come back home after she’d left him, “but it only worked once.” Winding things down, Shaver moved into the spooky and powerful “Oklahoma Wind,” with its classic independence motto “A government ain’t somethin’ you can trust.”

It was then that Billy Joe went off the setlist (which was conveniently located right in front of me), skipping his classic “Old Five and Dimers” in favor of a more obscure cut from his 1981 album I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal, “Ragged Old Truck.” This was followed by a rousing, thundering, slow-step dance rendition of “Try and Try Again,” which he delivered like a preacher firing up his flock. Finally came a hard-hitting version of “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”

With the trio still playing, Billy Joe picked up his bag, hugged each member of his band in turn, tipped his cap to the crowd and walked off, concluding the show with little more ceremony than it had begun. It was the perfect way to end a pretty damn perfect show. It’s the stuff that legends are made of, and the stuff that keeps them alive.

Click here for more pics!


For a taste of Billy Joe Shaver live, buy Live at Billy Bob's Texas on Amazon!
mp3 cd


No Pop. No Crap. No Surf.