Country-music iconoclast Willie Nelson filled Hard Rock Live with familiar hits and ageless swagger Thursday night. Here are five things that resonate about the show.
I am embarrassed to say that I waited until Willie Nelson was nearly 80 to see him perform live, but I can’t imagine he was any more energetic even 50 years ago. While the show was light on banter, Nelson, in black jeans and T-shirt, silvery braids unspooled from a low-slung black cowboy hat (which later gave way to the red bandanna), prowled the stage with well-worn authority. His confident, jazzy timing with lyrics (showing no sign of the flu that canceled a couple of recent concerts) and cascading finger work on his banged-up acoustic offered a vivid reminder of how underrated he is as a singer and guitarist. If the show had a by-the-numbers, not-my-first-rodeo quality to it, so what? It's enough just to see the guy still doing what he loves, damn the calendar. He'll release a new album, "Let's Face the Music and Dance," on April 16, two weeks before he turns 80.
After strolling onstage as the massive state flag of Texas unfurled behind him –– the size (it may have been borrowed from a suburban freeway car dealership) making it all the more ironic –– Nelson opened provocatively, with the logical encore, “Whiskey River.” But, then, he’s got about 20 songs that would make a great encore, and they sped by at a brisk pace: “Nightlife,” “Me and Paul,” “On the Road Again,” “Blue Eyes,” a spirited sing-along version of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and cheesy, crowd-enhanced treatment of “You Were Always on My Mind,” plus covers of “Crazy” and Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Best moments were the bluesy “Angel Flying to Close to the Ground” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” delivered with righteous gospel vigor.
More than 5,000 fans packed Hard Rock Live for the Old Farts and Jackass Tour stop, an easy sell-out. There was a sprinkling of cowboy hats, sharp-toed boots, outlaw motorcycle jackets and painted-on jeans, but plenty came in comfortable shoes and seemed to have celebrated nearly as many birthdays as the star. The room was an easy mark for Willie’s sing-it-with-me cues, with “Mamas” and “Always on My Mind” earning what passed for a standing ovation. A moment of comedy came when a gray-haired gentleman loped up to the stage and flipped a plastic baggy of what the post-show rumor mill said was marijuana onto the stage. Talk about crowd-sourcing … A security guard quickly removed it.
Nelson’s Family band is one of the tightest in country music, with the remarkable runs of longtime harmonica wizard Mickey Raphael especially memorable. But if there is a torch being passed, it is Nelson’s son Lukas who is on the receiving end. His fiery guitar duel with his dad on Lynryrd Skynrd’s “Call Me the Breeze” and a searing version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” underscored a talent to be reckoned with.
Another country-music icon, Merle Haggard, filled with moxie if not the physical verve of Nelson, opened the evening with a personable set of favorites, including “Mama Tried,” “Silver Wings” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” His blustery reading of the conservative anthem “Okie From Muskogee” got a big reception from the crowd (many of whom would have driven past the gun shop across the street, emblazoned with the words “Now Open” over a picture of an assault rifle). Haggard ended his set obviously, but wonderfully, doing a spirited duet with Nelson on “Pancho and Lefty,” after which they strode off in back-slapping brotherhood.
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