If anyone walked away unappreciative from Willie Nelson’s Sunday night concert at City Bank Auditorium, that person wasn’t even trying.
No other performer could sing as many songs and conquer as many genres within a 90-minute set. Few would even dare flit from sing-alongs to heartbreak, from classics by a plethora of great writers to self-deprecating, personal creations that, with Willie now 78, express an acceptance that he cannot keep up the pace of the past.
The concert was billed as Willie Nelson and Family; sister Bobbie was heard playing piano, but gifted son Lukas and daughter Amy apparently did not make the journey to West Texas. However, a banner reminded early arrivals that this musical family had lost its bassist of four decades, Dan “Bee” Spears, when he died from accidental exposure after falling outside his motor home near Nashville in December.
Only a few months earlier, Jody Payne, Nelson’s rhythm guitarist since the 1970s, retired.
Paul and Bobby English shared percussion duties Sunday; Paul suffered a minor stroke in 2010.
Nelson made certain to include “Me and Paul,” a song he wrote decades ago about their adventures together on the road.
Earning applause time and again was Mickey Raphael, helping Nelson with sweet harmonica solos. Kevin Smith filled out the six-piece band on bass guitar.
On this night, however, an icon became musical hero when Nelson paid little mind to even his own recent recordings and instead provided a show of almost two dozen greatest hits, certainly a reminder of his road warrior status.
Dressed in his familiar black T-shirt and jeans, his hair braided on either side of a face lined like the highways on a map, Nelson’s constant partner was Trigger, his older-than-dirt, battered but loyal, nylon-string acoustic Martin guitar. And indeed, his fingers often expressed a life and energy of their own, insisting on pickin’ solos that may have been the most pleasant parts of the concert.
It was Fort Worth critic Shirley Jinkins who wrote that Nelson is no longer red-headed or a stranger. But the gray — temporarily covered by hats and bandanas, which Nelson tossed into the audience — could not make one forget the size of the man’s heart, commanding respectful attention via his renditions of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “You Were Always on My Mind.”
Nelson is one of very few performers who can lure a near-sellout crowd into the palm of his hand with very little stage patter.
Other than time taken to introduce the band, he is more comfortable moving from one song to the next and on to the next.
He easily recognized the ability of a three-song Hank Williams tribute, as well as songs by Kris Kristofferson and Littlefield’s Waylon Jennings to help him entertain.
Ray Charles took a song by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, “Georgia on My Mind,” and recorded it in 1960; Nelson found the country leanings within the same blues hit in 1978. And for more than 30 years, a singer who personifies Texas has silenced audiences with his passion for “Georgia.”
For three minutes anyway.
But country and blues can drive Nelson to a church pew just as easily, where he raised spirits with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the upbeat “I’ll Fly Away” and shared a version of “Amazing Grace” that came across as both thankful and pain-filled.
Yet it is at this point that Nelson chooses to make fun of his legalize-marijuana stance, and his age, with the musical plea to “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
Sunday’s was an interesting concert in that I rarely have seen Nelson hand off choruses or lines to his fans that often. But he obviously has recognized that “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses” is fast approaching the sing-along status of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
The best moments, however, were those emphasizing Willie and Trigger. These were the ones that found Nelson becoming lost within his favorite music, and the crowd most appreciative when lost within his familiar vocals.
• 1. “Whiskey River”
• 2. “Still is Still Moving To Me”
• 3. “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses”
• 4. Medley: “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” “Night Life”
• 5. “Down Yonder” (instrumental)
• 6. “Me and Paul”
• 7. “Help Me Make It Through the Night”
• 8. “Me and Bobby McGee”
• 9. “Georgia on My Mind”
• 10. “Healing Hands of Time”
• 11. “Good Hearted Woman”
• 12. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
• 13. “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies (Grow Up to be Cowboys)”
• 14. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”
• 15. “On the Road Again”
• 16. “Always on My Mind”
• 17. “(I’m Not) Superman”
• 18, “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Any More”
• 19. “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”
• 20. “Hey Good Lookin’ ”
• 21. “Move It On Over”
• 22. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
• 23. “I’ll Fly Away”
• 24. “Amazing Grace”
• 25. “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
• 26. “I Saw the Light”