Willie Nelson attracts a diverse and strange sort of crowd, and the crowd was ready for Willie. People tried to sneak peaks of him getting off his bio-diesel tour bus (which he calls “Bio-Willie”), but one steadfast usher shot threats of violence and hellfire to those standing beyond the rope. Roadies running around all looked like the man himself. One of these roadies turned out to actually be Willie, as he shook his jacket off and took to the stage.
This outdoor pavilion sits on a grassy, gravelly, and dirt hill, and its lawn slopes ever so gently downward from the stage. This enables the crowd to not see anything unless one has a ticket to the “golden circle”, and as I tried to locate a place to view the concert, I realized that nowhere I went had a good view.
Willie opened with his upbeat version of “Whiskey River” (the rowdy version he has played live for quite some time, as opposed to his slower, funkier version on Shotgun Willie). His black Stetson sat atop his head, and he later took it off to reveal his trademark bandana. He played his signature Martin acoustic (with nylon strings); from up close the guitar is battered, signed, and generally beat up. For a man who has performed and continues to perform tirelessly, he has to find a way to keep things fresh and fun. So, this show was more like a medley of Willie’s greatest hits. Instead of any stage banter, Willie went right into the following songs (sometimes even before the song was finished). I hate to say it, but it seemed like he was just going through the motions. But for many people, that’s just fine. We’re lucky to even be in the midst of this great performer.
A crowd favorite, “Beer for My Horses”, was his third selection, and Willie took a moment to take a sip of beer himself. The Toby Keith hit had the crowd wailing from its first notes. The next moment was a surprise for those who had not seen a Willie Nelson show before. Willie had his sister, Bobbie, next to him on a grand piano. She played a piano interlude full of ragtime and stride, while Willie and his cohorts egged her on. “Whenever our band plays”, says Willie, “Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage”. She would return to the forefront on several occasions throughout the rest of the set, hammering away like an up-and-coming star rather than Willie’s older sister.
“Funny How Time Slips Away” came next, and it featured Willie on a particularly wailing guitar solo. The melody changed slightly, and suddenly Willie was crooning “Crazy” to the uproar of the crowd. This song, in turn, melded into “Night Life”, replete with triangle. Bonnie’s second solo interlude led the band into “Me and Paul”, this critic’s personal favorite. Willie, with another signature of line phrasing, seemed to move faster than the band could handle. The words seemed to jumble together or get ahead of the music, but everything in the end worked out perfectly: Willie style.
The pronounced percussion of “Me & Bobby McGee” landed a better version of the song than Mr. Kristofferson himself. Hit after hit kept coming: “On the Road Again”, “Always on My Mind”, and Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’”. Even though the latter is not necessarily associated with Willie, from now on it will be. Willie played a double dose of Hank as he followed it up with “Move It on Over”. A few more selections led up to a “Whiskey River” reprise and a “Georgia” closer. By this time, the darkened venue had only a glimmer of stage lights, and Willie came back onstage for a final rendering of “I Saw the Light”. And after witnessing a living legend do his thing, the audience saw the light, which I guess was pretty good compensation for not being able to see the stage.