Last Night: Willie Nelson At Verizon Wireless Theater
See Willie Nelson's extended Houston family in our slideshow.
There are few times you don't want the Rolling Stones in your head. A very few. But on your way to a Willie Nelson show trying to fight off the insinuating strains of "The Last Time" is one of them.
Not to be morbid, but the Red Headed Stranger is getting up there. It could be the last time. He looked stiff and, well, aged walking onstage at Verizon at 9 p.m. sharp Thursday night. He ought to; he turns 78 on Saturday. "Little sister" Bobbie had to be escorted to her grand piano.
Then Willie starts to play, and a different realization sets in: The man is eternal. Ain't it funny how time slips away.
It really does, too. When Nelson and his band - besides Bobbie, just bassist Bee Spears, drummers Paul and Billy English and Mickey Raphael on harmonica Thursday - get locked in, most often on a ballad like "Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground" or "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain," the clock freezes and there's nothing except those notes ducking and diving around one another, searching for the meaning the singer is denied in the words. Beautiful.
On the faster songs, say "Good Hearted Woman" or "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," it becomes clear what a unique guitarist Nelson is. It's almost expressionist the way he scratches and stabs at his instrument - trusty acoustic Trigger until switching to a pearl Fender electric on Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" - as he plays above, below, ahead of and behind the beat laid down by the Swiss-timed Spears and English.
The carpal tunnel he mentioned before new single "Superman" (a duet with Snoop Dogg on record) must not have been bothering him too much. The way he negotiated the tricky thickets of "Bloody Mary Morning" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine," it couldn't have.
Aftermath's main (and admittedly minor) knocks on Nelson the past few times we've seen him have been that he plays the exact same set every time, and sometimes the songs come and go so fast it can be hard to soak them in. They don't call him Shotgun Willie for nothing.
Neither was really true Thursday. Gone were anything by his old pals Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard - maybe he's mad at them right now - and, equally surprisingly, Bob Wills. He might have shelved that after the whole Asleep at the WheelWillie and the Wheel cycle.
In their place were several country-blues numbers ("Rainy Day Blues," "Shoeshine Man") that sounded vintage but not fusty, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" - which drew a laugh when Nelson blew a lyric near the end - and one of those songs that comes along at exactly the right moment you need to hear it, this time Billy Joe Shaver's "You Asked Me To." The title track/theme to 1973's Phases and Stages was another deep cut that cut especially deep.