Flanked by the unchanging “family” band lineup (sister Bobbie on piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Bee Spears on bass, and brothers Paul and Billy English, interchangeably, on drums), his bio-diesel fueled tour bus just offstage right, and “Trigger,” his iconic acoustic guitar, Nelson hit the Mountain View Plaza stage last Saturday wielding a wardrobe of red bandanas (periodically flung to the crowd) and a set of beloved hits.
In honor of the event, the Snoqualmie Tribal Council passed a resolution legalizing marijuana for the day but the older, weathered crowd seemed more into imbibing with Bud Light than lighting one up, and security strictly enforced the designated cigarette-smoking area and no-photo restrictions (one staff member even chided me for taking photos when I was actually taking notes on my phone). But these were trivial annoyances when compared to the actual scope of the happening–which is the fact that Willie Nelson still rocks hard. Immediately after arriving onstage around 6:15 p.m., the band launched into the easy-flowing groove of “Whiskey River,” a prime example of the the band’s natural dynamic at work, with Raphael’s soulful, spot-on harmonica, Bobbie’s merry, twinkling keys, and Nelson’s vibrating, nylon six-string mellowing together in a seamless jam.
Conditions were warm and breezy, ideal weather for an outdoor show, though with such well-used, well-loved instruments–including the English brothers’ uniquely compact percussion setup–the sound levels were soft and could have been better amplified to compete with the excited buzz of the audience. But the sold-out crowd seemed far less concerned with sound quality than with the sheer quantity of tunes Nelson was shoveling out, and from the first note of the signature medley “Crazy”/”Funny How Time Slips Away” to Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman,” they were singing every word.
It was a quick, efficient set, and Nelson’s croon, still rich and distinctive, breezed through standards like “Night Life,” “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” and “Bloody Mary Morning” with a natural gait, backed by the easy finesse of a group that is as loyal as the name “family” suggests (Paul English being Nelson’s longest-standing band member since 1955). Just before 8 p.m., after a trio of Hank Williams covers and a cover of Alison Krauss’ “I’ll Fly Away,” the band waved briefly and walked offstage. The house music erupted immediately, eliminating even the thought of an encore. This too, the audience didn’t seem to mind, satisfied with the near-90-minute session Nelson tirelessly delivered. Except for me, that is, ever grumbling and wanting more. A well-dressed woman in her 70s heard me griping and leaned over to give me some perspective, commenting sharply, “Come on, give him a break! He’s 78 years old!”
The Scene: Old folks, old-timers, weathered Willie fans, some intoxicated, dancing female groupies. Older folks splurged on front-and-center seats, younger fans stuck mostly to the bleachers.
Double Whammy Awesome: Getting Mickey Raphael’s autograph, probing him briefly about fellow harmonica player and Seattle resident Lee Oskar’s brief solo toward the end of the set. And: a friendly wave and finger point from Nelson himself.
Elsewhere in the Set: “If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time),” “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” “Angels Flying Too Close To The Ground,” “Jambalaya,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Move It On Over,” “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” “Shoeshine Man,” “Superman,” “I Saw The Light,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Always on My Mind.”