Nokia Theatre, Feb. 13
Photos by Timothy Norris
If Willie Nelson had delivered a show with half as much heart, enthusiasm and class, it still would have been an excellent night of American music. I'm ashamed I expected so little from the man. With a simple backdrop of the Texas flag, a blessedly straightforward eight-piece band, and a setlist that would make Dylan, Van or Stevie Wonder shake their heads in awe, Nelson flips through nearly thirty songs, one after another, barely pausing for a breath.
“Trigger,” Nelson's battered Martin guitar, still hasn't disintegrated into dust, and Nelson plays the thing all night. No roadie comes out to tune it or swap it for some newer instrument. And by no means does Nelson ever just take a break from it and let his other two guitarists handle the duties.
Nelson not only plays Trigger, he rules the stage with that guitar. He knocks out solo after solo, never letting the opportunity pass quietly if there's a couple of measures where he can pull another run out of the instrument.
Just four years ago, Willie Nelson canceled a tour and had surgery on his wrist for carpal tunnel syndrome which caused him so much pain he couldn't finish shows. Watching his hands move across the fretboard now, you've got to give the doctors a tip of the cowboy hat for letting us still see him in such fine action now.
Let me describe drummer Paul English's set-up: A snare. Played with brushes. Seriously – that's all. No fiddle, pedal steel, back-up singers, electric keyboards or any of that nonsense. Nelson's band, made up of two sons, his sister Bobbi and some long-time bandmates were never showy (unless it was absolutely called for), and though they've probably played the bulk of this set list for years, it sounded fresh, loose and fun.
“Crazy”, “Night Life,” On the Road Again,” “Always On My Mind,” “Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” yeah, he plays all of them, as well as a wonderful batch of covers including Kris Kristofferson's “Me and Bobby McGee,” Waylon Jennings' “A Good Hearted Woman” and “Luckenbach Texas,” and a couple by Hank Williams.
Nelson's vocal phrasings are tough to sing along to; he's often singing lines a good couple of beats in front of the music, but Sinatra did the same thing in the later years of his live performing. I don't make the comparison lightly. There's an impatient quality about Nelson's playing and singing – to say nothing of his recording over the past several years. For being a Zen cowboy, Nelson's in a race. He's still doing concept albums and writing excellent new songs like “Superman,” and “Still is Still Moving.” But time isn't on anyone's side, and it's staring directly at Willie Nelson and checking the calendar regularly… Nelson's not wasting a moment.
No one gets as rowdy in the Nokia as we might at Stubb's BBQ in Austin or the Illinois State Fair on a hot July night, but Nelson still brings the crowd to its feet regularly throughout. Even the half dozen honest-to-god Hell's Angels sitting a couple of rows in front of me were bobbing their tattooed anvil-like heads along with “Pancho & Lefty.” Young and old in the crowd? You bet. As we grow, we grow into his music. Willie Nelson speaks in a language more universal than just “country.” He's one of the few artists my own mother and I have in common, and for that alone, he's invaluable.
All photos by Timothy Norris