For whatever reason, Willie Nelson's Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro has existed in a vacuum in his catalog. A scant year or so before it was released -- and its recording sessions filmed in an old movie theater in Oxnard, California by Wim Wenders -- Nelson issued the now classic Spirit. Island Records, which had no idea what to do with the earlier record's unsentimental, moody, sparsely arranged songs, faced the same unwieldy task here.
Light in the Attic's Matt Sullivan and Patrick McCarthy fully understood both records and licensed them. While Spirit appears in a distinct vinyl-only edition for Record Store Day, Teatro is given the deluxe reissue treatment; completely remastered, it includes not only seven unreleased bonus tracks from the original four days of recording that netted the album, but a DVD of Wenders' film as a bonus disc. In the opening instrumental, "Matador," the ghost of Spirit looms large. The lean band includes Mickey Raphael, Bobbie Nelson, Lanois, percussionists Tony Mangurian and Victor Indrizzo, Emmylou Harris (on 11 of the 14 original tracks -- Lanois produced her Wrecking Ball in 1995), and guests Cyril Neville and Brad Mehldau. Lyrically, Nelson is at least as ambitious as he was on Spirit. Rhythmically, with Lanois' prodding, he's more so. Teatro is sad and sometimes bitter, but Nelson is such a benevolent singer it hardly matters, as evidenced on "I Never Cared for You" and the Spanish two-step in "Darkness on the Face of the Earth." Lanois is a busy guitar and bass player, which provides quite a contrast with Nelson's sparser style. It works well on "My Own Peculiar Way," with the floating percussion (that includes Mehldau on vibes) balancing the guitars. The touch of Afro-Cuban rhythm in "These Lonely Nights" (and the unreleased closer "Things to Remember") add sharp left turns to Nelson's conventional melodies and he rises to meet their challenge. The cover of Lanois' "The Maker" layers thick slaps of sweet, melodic, distorted guitar over its intro as Harris and Nelson have always worked well together and are symbiotic here. (She also cut the song for Wrecking Ball.) For more evidence, check the bonus material -- especially on Rodney Crowell's "Til I Gain Control Again," Hank Locklin's "Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On," and Scotty Wiseman's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love Lou.") Lyrically, Nelson strides ahead of all his late-'80s and early-'90s missteps, continuing the great strides he made on Spirit. His singing and interpretive skills are at a peak. The readings of "Home Motel," "My Own Peculiar Way," and "I've Just Destroyed the World" are stunning. Teatro was always special, and this fine presentation draws much deserved attention back to it. While it's regarded as the second part of the story that began with Spirit, it stands on its own as a towering, artful document. With its cinematic companion attached, it rightfully establishes its place as one of the true highlights in Nelson's massive catalog.