‘Live at Budokan’ Is a Look at Willie Nelson in His Prime

by Clayton Edwards
(Photo by Darlene Pfister/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

 Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, Japan is a martial arts arena originally constructed for the 1964 Olympics. By the eighties, playing the arena was a milestone for musicians. By the time Willie Nelson stepped on its stage, Bob Dylan, Cheap Trick, and Eric Clapton had already recorded live albums there. Willie followed suit. However, the album never saw the light of day. A concert film on laser disc was released exclusively in Japan. Other than that, though, this recording was locked in a vault for nearly four decades. Today, we get to hear it in full for the first time.

It’s important to note that Willie Nelson played this show at a pivotal time in his career. He released the Outlaw Country classic Red Headed Stranger in 1975. Three years later, he released the Quintuple-Platinum-selling collection of pop standards Stardust. By the time Willie stepped on the Budokan stage on February 23, 1984, he was on the verge of being the household name that he is today.

Live at Budokan Is Peak Willie Nelson

Listening to this album is like stepping back in time. We hear a younger Willie Nelson who is still climbing the ladder to superstardom. Additionally, many of the talented musicians behind him on the recording have since passed away. Nelson’s late drummer and longtime friend Paul English is there. Additionally, Willie’s sister Bobbie plays keys on the recording. Then, there’s legendary Nashville session guitarist Grady Martin playing electric guitar.

The interplay between Grady Martin and Willie Nelson on lead guitar elevates these arrangements. Their styles are different, but they complement each other nicely. Also, it feels like both musicians are pushing themselves a little more. Their work on “Stardust” is a great example of this.

This may also be the only live album on which Willie Nelson plays sober. As Texas Monthly notes, he couldn’t get his hands on any grass during his stint in Japan. In 1980, Paul McCartney made national news when he got busted with a half-pound of reefer in a Japanese airport. Willie didn’t want that kind of press or legal problems. You really can’t tell the difference. However, songs like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “Good Hearted Woman” are a little faster than usual.

With this album’s mixture of deep cuts and songs that have since become classics, it is a must-hear for any Willie Nelson fan. For that same reason, it’s a great introduction for new listeners.

Listen to Live at Budokan

You can listen to Willie Nelson’s full show at Budokan on your favorite streaming platform. If you’d rather have a physical copy, it’s available as a two-CD set. Those who are looking for this album on vinyl will have to wait until Black Friday. The double-LP set will be part of Record Store Day. So, you can skip the big-box stores and head to your local independent record store to get your copy.

Additionally, a concert film of Willie Nelson and the band playing Budokan will air on PBS on November 26th. Check your local listings for more information.