He asks me, already aware of the answer, if the setlist feels familiar. In the past 30 years it’s fair to say most Willie Nelson shows follow a similar format: open with “Whiskey River” and close with “I Saw The Light” always, sprinkle in “You Were Always On My Mind,” “Momma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and the bizarre, patriotism incarnate “Beer For My Horses,” plus a few fan-favorite covers for good measure. And then there’s Trigger, Willie’s dearly loved, war-battered Martin M-20 classical guitar circa 1969, with the gaping-hole just above the bridge, as weathered and worn as ever, but also as pitch-perfect and strong. True to form, last night’s setlist didn’t deviate much from that structure. It’s not a complaint or comment on his star that he tours the same songs — they are the ones his fans want to hear and he plays them with such lonesome yearning and furious zeal that they’re as affecting as they ever were.
When Willie took the stage at 9 p.m., clad in a black graphic T-shirt, black pants and cowboy hat, a thunder of applause erupted from the all-ages audience. Truly, a Willie Nelson concert spans the gamut, proving the outlaw country cowboy is as popular at 78-years-young (make that 79-years-young on April 30), as he was in his hardscrabble 1975 heyday. After opening the show with “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving For Me,” he starts strumming “Beer For My Horses” and a sea of fans singing (ahem, shouting?) engulfs the room. Surely a man of conviction but also complexity, I’ll never totally understand how Willie, who covered Coldplay’s “The Scientist” for an anti-factory farming commercial for Chipotle, champions for the legalization of marijuana nationwide and backs the politics of Dennis Kucinich can sing the lyrics “We’ve got too much corruption, too much crime in the streets/It’s time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground/Send ‘em all to their maker and he’ll settle ‘em down” earnestly. But he does. And when you’re seeing him, you do too. You just do.
Smooth “Shoeshine Man” comes next, and during the break Willie trades his cowboy hat for a red bandana, one of many sitting on his amp. As the song draws to a close Willie says hello to the crowd, warming everyone up with some banter set to guitar strumming, appropriate for the king of conversational singing. Bluesy, gypsy jazzy “Funny How Time Slips Away” evolves into a wistful guitar solo, which evolves into “Crazy,” a song we all know but not necessarily as a Willie Nelson song: A woman near me exclaims, “I love Patsy Cline;” a reminder of Willie’s early struggles in the music business as more than a songwriter, which for me at least, ups the sentiment of the experience.
A flurry of hits follow in rapid succession: Bluesy, free-flowing “It’s My Life,” during which he introduces sister Bobbi on keys, harmonica virtuoso Mickey Raphael, longtime drummer and partner in crime Paul English and new bassist Kevin Smith (R.I.P. Dan “Bee” Spears); “Me and Paul” a playful heartstring tugger about his adventures with English and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Then Willie launches into “Me and Bobby McGee,” singing, playing, jamming with Bobbi as if the song were written for her, about her. Then it’s back to Willie standards “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” and “Good Hearted Woman,” when he takes off his bandana and breaks to let the audience help with the chorus to the song that was he and Waylon Jennings first duet chart-topper. The audience seems surprised as the band begins “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” with organic, tender guitar from Willie leading into knee-slapping nomad anthem “On the Road Again,” where Mickey’s spirited, precision harmonica playing pours out pure hellraising, honky tonk noise.
Then it’s “You Were Always On My Mind,” that old love song anthology favorite you know he’ll play and a song I feel some ambivalence toward, until of course, he played it. Full of more winsome nostalgia and raw, dressed-down longing than the heartbreak and schmaltz I unfairly associate it with; Willie had me as transfixed and enamored as the rest of the audience. Then the lights come down a bit more and a spotlight follows Willie as he riffs a bluesy, folksy instrumental, intimate and rambling, not bothered by the crowds “ohhs,” “ahhs,” applauses and iPhone videography. The twangy acoustic performance gives way to twangier “Momma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and again the crowd assists with chorus (and yee-haws).
A dusty “I Never Cared For You” follows, then it’s a defiant charge of covers: Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” with stunning piano mimicking trickling water by Bobbi, silty guitar from Willie; Hank Williams’ two-stepping “Hey Good Lookin;” George Thorogood’s “Move It On Over;” the slow-like-molasses, Ray Charles made-famous “Georgia On My Mind” (which Mickey shreds on harmonica; a craftsman if ever the instrument had one) and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” which gained a surprising amount of cowboy hat tips from the crowd; Albert Hammond’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” which earns a smile from Willie’s 1984 cover with Julio Iglesias and because of the dick joke addition to the lyrics he adds with a mischievous grin, “To all the girls I once caressed/And may I say I’ve held the best/For helping me to grow/and grow, and grow, and grow;” Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train” and the Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings tune “You Asked Me To.”
Coming off the wave of covers, Willie dedicates the next song, “Where Is Our Hero?” to Billy Joe Shaver and all his heroes, and then his daughter Amy takes the stage to sing a soul-filled gospel medley with Willie and family, starting off with 1920s bluegrassy, dust bowl hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s one big party and everyone’s keeping their own clap beats; it’s messy and magical and evokes positive feeling and energy. Willie chases that vibe with the next song, “a new gospel” song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and of course, it isn’t long before a cloud of smoke begins to rise from the center pit of the Pageant. And, as we all knew he would, Willie wraps up a captivating, rollicking set with “I Saw the Light” at 10:30 p.m., in like a lion and out like lion, he throws the pile of bandanas bandied about his amp into the crowd who clamor for them, then he takes an extra five minutes to shake the hands of each person in the front row, picking up gifts, praise and cowboy hats along the way.
Random Detail: Though Paul English only played a few songs on stage before a second drummer took the stage, it’s a thing of beauty to watch him and Willie play and playful banter together. Also, though the concert was April 17 and not April 20, it was still close enough for fans of the Teapot Party founder.
Overheard: “I love Patsy Cline!” during “Crazy,” and “A guy from Texas singing about Georgia?” during “Georgia On My Mind.”
Still is Still Moving For Me
Beer For My Horses
Funny How Time Slips Away
It’s My Life
Help Me Make It Through the Night
Me and Bobby McGee
Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain
Good Hearted Woman
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
You Were Always On My Mind
I Never Cared For You
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Hey Good Lookin’
Move It On Over
Georgia On My Mind
City of New Orleans
To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before
Georgia on a Fast Train
You Asked Me To
Where Is Our Hero?
I’ll Fly Away
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
I Saw the Light