Oh that any of us are still as creative, energetic and fun at 80 years old as Willie Nelson. We really, really enjoyed his concert last night.
Whatever fears I had of seeing some sad old-timer playing beyond his years were immediately dispelled by the rousing opening version of “Whiskey River” and a swinging “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” The guy is truly amazing. His voice sounded great (better than on one of his recent albums) and his always underrated guitar playing was terrific: warm and beautiful at times, as on Django Reinhardt's "Nuages", or hard-driving and almost atonal on “Night Life.” What many people fail to realize is that beneath Willie Nelson the cartoon-figure cultural icon there percolates a musical mind of the highest order. His understanding of jazz, popular music, country, rock, folk, Mexican and Latin music and other genres is tremendous. As someone who loves all kinds of music, I find it invigorating. Tell me what living performer in a 90-minute show could weave together in a seamless whole Django, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Carl Perkins, Kris Kristofferson, shit-kicking country, gospel hymns, rockabilly, two songs originally performed with Snoop Dog, and, of course, the tremendous Willie Nelson catalog? His moody, samba-country arrangement of Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” may have been the highlight of the evening. (Even better than the studio version attached.) I don’t think I had ever really paid attention to Berlin’s opening line, “There may trouble ahead,” but last night when Willie growled out the words, I had images of outlaws riding into Mexico floating through my head, and the darker atmosphere of the song really came out.
The musicianship last night was top notch. In addition to Willie, the line-up included the key members of the classic “Family” line-up that produced all of those great outlaw country records in the early and mid-70s: his sister Bobbie on piano, Paul (The Devil) English on drums and percussion, and Mickey Raphael, who may now be the greatest living harmonica player, with all due respect to Toots Thielemans at 91. These people have been playing together off and on for about 40 years (Willie and English actually first played together in 1955!), and they know each other so well, that they can follow one another with great skill and ease from a hell-raising country song to a haunting version of "Gerogia." But the key to everything may be the young stud on stand-up bass whose super groovy, driving rhythm kept the old folks on their toes. I don’t know the guy’s name, but he made his presence felt from the first moment of the night. There was also a young drummer/percussionist who switched off and on with English, who suffered a minor stroke in 2010. The Devil would play drums on some of the old hits and more mellow pieces, and the young drummer took over on the swinging, upbeat songs. When not on drums, they both added some terrific percussion, especially English. He may not be able to pound the skins on every tune any more, but he’s a wise old dog with a great ability to add the perfect spice to a song - a chilling set of chimes during “Georgia,” or tasteful maracas during one of the Mexican-flavored works.
The other thing that impressed me was that many of the best songs of the evening were from Willie’s last two albums, Let’s Face the Music and Dance (2013) and Heroes (2012). He certainly played some of his classics (including my two favorites – “Me and Paul” and “Funny How time Slips Away”) and his big hits, which had the crowd singing along, but in no way was this some kind of retrospective show. He’s still making good music and having fun performing it live. Another great part of last night was hearing this group play some of those awful, syrupy Willie songs from the early 80s ("Always on My Mind" "To All the Girls I've Loved") that I've always hated. Suddenly, with new stripped-down arrangements, they didn't sound half bad. Also, thinking back on it, I can't believe how much material the guy crammed into 90 minutes. They never took a break, and he (sadly) didn't chatter much between songs. They just played. And played a lot.
In the end, the best part of the night may have just been watching an 80 year old musical artist with so much joie de vivre, who obviously still loves what he’s doing, does it pretty damn well, and seems to really enjoy playing for people. And they enjoy him. There was a great communal spirit in the auditorium last night. And my oh my how the ladies do love this old fart. At one point, Alexandra and I thought we were at a Tom Jones concert, as not one, not two, but three women climbed on stage to give the guy a kiss or throw him a bandana or try to hug him. And one of them was probably in her 20s or 30s! Yes, Willie sing-talks through some of his songs, but he did it wisely and to good effect, turning a potential weakness into a strength. And I’m sure his guitar skills are not the same at 80 as they were at 40. But all in all, the guy was pretty impressive. My only regret last night was that I hadn’t gone to see Willie sooner in my life, so I could have experienced him more in concert. If we could, we would go again this evening. Alexandra and I both really enjoyed ourselves.