Willie Nelson & Family
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Better than …trying to find a place to stay in Austin this weekend.
Last night, before a sold-out crowd at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, country legend Willie Nelson dipped into a fifty-year catalog of hits, backed by his son Lukas, his sister Bobbie and a stripped down band of thumpers. Despite being in his late 70s, Nelson played and sang tirelessly for over an hour and a half.
The evening opened with a brief set by his son Lukas with a six-piece band. The moment he began to sing there was immediate recognition from the crowd; he was clearly his father's son. The band stuck to a handful of rocking tunes with Lukas taking scorching electric guitar solos that also hinted at his lineage. The band closed with a strutting cover of Neil Young's “Homegrown” and were off the stage in less than a half an hour.
With nearly five minutes between the house lights being turned off and Willie Nelson's arrival on stage the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, shouting “Willie!” and clapping in unison to draw the legend from behind the double doors. When he finally appeared the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Nelson's six-piece band opened with “Whiskey River,” finding their pace behind Nelson's clipped phrasing. Keeping with the booze theme, Nelson then launched into a driving “Beer for My Horses,” which elicited a sing-along from some of the audience. A couple of large men in the corner fist-pumped throughout the set. It was nice of management not to harsh their mellow.
Maybe because he has so many great musical talents, Nelson's guitar playing is often overlooked. With his battered acoustic guitar named Trigger strapped to his body, Nelson took a fair amount of solos, downright shredding on “Night Life” while taking a beautiful lilting solo on an instrumental Django Reinhardt tune, “Nuages.” His punctual nylon notes were at the very front of the sound mix.
For “Me and Paul,” Nelson brought out one of two drummers, Paul English, to play along to his upbeat travelogue of hazy mishaps. Both drummers (brother Billy English was the other) spent the evening playing a drum kit that consisted of one snare drum and a bag of sticks and brushes. Both drummers did a fine job of driving the band, drawing the essence of percussion from the top of one small drum.
Between tossing bandanas into the crowd, Nelson went on a tear, playing “Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Always On My Mind” and “Good-Hearted Woman” one after the other. His piano-playing sister Bobbie nailed the last tune with the kind of solo that usually ends when a whiskey bottle is broken over someone's head.
Towards the end of the evening Nelson introduced a future classic: “I wrote a new gospel song. It's called 'Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.'” The hoots and hollers rolled along as Nelson advised lighting him up and pointing him to the sky.
He closed with “I Saw the Light” in a bouncing shuffle and then waved to every corner of the room before walking offstage as his band played on. Nelson said very little to the audience during the set and even less to his band but there was no doubt that everyone in that room was with him every step of the way.
Personal Bias: I like Elvis' version of “Always on My Mind” better.
The Crowd: Many with aching joints, many more with loose joints. Some with both.
Random Notebook Dump: I'm pretty sure no headliner at Walt Disney Concert Hall has been arrested more than Willie Nelson.