A lot of folks would be thinking about retiring by the time they’re in their 70s. But such standard thinking does not seem to apply to the higher level musicians of planet Earth in the early 21st century. Rock star, or country rock star in this case, is the greatest profession in the world, so why retire when your job is being on the road again having fun making music with your friends? It’s probably even more gratifying when you can include family members as well, and so the road goes on for music legend Willie Nelson.
This formula provides a road map for how to age gracefully, yet keep one’s youthful spirit alive. Willie’s younger sister Bobbie has been on piano in the band for years. Now his son Lukas has become a rising star in his own right, in his early 20s, with his band Promise of the Real. PotR has been wowing club crowds across the nation with a high octane rock show that blends a variety of classic rock influences with a little bit of that familiar Nelson twang. It’s led to a run of shows with PotR opening for Willie, and Lukas then serving as a guitarist in his dad’s band. This is the stuff that music dreams are made of, so it’s no surprise that the Balboa Theater is a hub of activity on a Wednesday night in San Diego’s bustling Gaslamp District.
Few acts will see as many people eagerly awaiting the arrival of the tour bus as a beloved icon like Willie Nelson. Fans line the sidewalk hoping for an autograph or a picture, but the savvy fans were making sure to get inside the theater on time for the opening set from Lukas Nelson and his band. The crowd seems a bit sedate during the strong blues rock jam that opens the show, and the fact that it’s a seated theater probably works against Lukas and his mates here. But the end of the song brings loud applause from the attentive audience.
“Four Letter Word” from the band’s debut album is a winner, and then sister Amy Nelson joins in on backing vocals for the poignant ballad “Sound of Your Memory”, while brother Mike serves on percussion throughout the set. “Hoochie Coochie Man” seems tailor made for Lukas, as he sings the classic tune of how a gypsy woman warned his mom he’d be a son of a gun. Lukas tears it up on lead guitar, including a solo with his teeth a la Jimi Hendrix to close out the short but sweet half hour set. It’s only a taste of what this band can really do, but their time will surely come. Lukas Nelson is clearly a dynamic old soul in a young body and just getting started.
The bars do a brisk business during the set break and it’s only too bad Willie isn’t still producing his own brand of whiskey. But at least there’s some Maker’s Mark on hand. “Willie Nelson for President – Campaign 2012” posters make a strong impression. There’s little doubt that music lovers would be better off if Nelson were president, which would conjure an alternate reality where a song like the Nelson family’s “Peaceful Solution” could be a reality instead of what seems a distant dream. Leadership from “The Tao of Willie” (a humorous yet reflectively spiritual sort of self-help book published by Nelson in 2006) would surely benefit humanity more than that which comes from “The Tao of War” that seems to influence world leaders so much.
Perennial opener “Whiskey River” gets things started as usual and it’s a joy to see Lukas Nelson there on guitar right beside his dad. Willie then leads the band through an energetic set that covers wide ground from his pantheon of classics, as well as several heartfelt tributes to fallen comrades. “Still is Still Moving to Me” finds Willie in fine form on one of his bluesier uptempo tunes, while “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses” conjures the first big crowd sing along of the night. Willie tosses his hat into crowd at the end of the tune and then dons his classic bandana.
A stellar sequence finds Willie leading the band seamlessly from “Time Slips Away” into “Crazy” into “Night Life”, with the songs blending beautifully into one another. Willie riffs it up on the latter and then introduces younger sister Bobbie who follows with her own piano solo. Longtime harmonica ace Mickey Raphael adds one of his own and the band is really cooking now. A special highlight occurs when Willie calls for the rest of the Promise of the Real guys to come out, with Lukas then leading the combined bands through a bluesy “Texas Flood” tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn, complete with smoldering Stratocaster solo. Lukas may only be 23, but there’s no doubt he’s a blues prodigy.
“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” incites another mass singalong, followed by another tribute treat with “Me and Bobby McGee”. It may be Kris Kristofferson’s song, but it conjures Janis Joplin for many and this stellar rendition finds a very young girl obviously related to someone in the band dancing up a storm at the side of the stage. “How about one for Waylon?” asks Willie by way of introduction to “Good Hearted Woman”, which gets the crowd clapping along.
“On the Road Again” provides one of the top highlights, an anthemic classic that only seems to grow in stature with each passing year. The song may have at one time seemed like a cliché to younger fans some years ago before they understood what Willie Nelson was all about. But spend any time on the road following your favorite band around the country and then this tune resonates like a hymn. Gospel classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” closes out the set with Lukas and Amy Nelson arm in arm, and its clear that a family that plays together is a family that stays together. The encore then features a new instant classic as only Willie can.
“Here’s a new gospel song we’d like to spring on you, ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die’”, says Willie and now Mike Nelson is in between siblings Lukas and Amy, all three arm in arm for this humorously moving ode to moving on to the afterlife. “I Saw the Light” follows in appropriate fashion to close out the evening, with Willie signing autographs from the edge of the stage as the band plays on. This is a rare site to see from any popular musician, much less one who has spent as many decades on the road as Willie. But like all the greatest musicians and songwriters, he knows its those fans that make the “On the Road Again” lifestyle possible.