Last Night: Willie Nelson at Arena Theatre
For some artists, even superlatives aren't enough. Willie Nelson turns 80 next month. He's been making music -- and making a living off it -- longer than my parents have been alive. And while there are other country artists of similar vintage and pedigree still kicking around (George Jones, Merle Haggard, Jerry Jeff Walker), no one else is as embraced and respected across the generations as the Red-Headed Stranger.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying we can cut the guy some slack.
Willie didn't put on a bad show last night at the Arena Theater, because even on autopilot the guy has a repertoire that puts just about everyone else to shame. He offered a dutiful performance, and if the hiccups were more apparent than usual, nobody really seemed to care.
Is anyone in music as beloved as Willie Nelson? From the reception he got walking into the theater last night, you'd think the dude had killed Hitler with his bare hands. The Arena's setup works well in many regards, but one of the advantages came in allowing Willie to high-five his fans before he took the stage.
And from there we were off. Playing his trusty Martin N-20 "Trigger," as he has since 1969, he opened with "Whiskey River" from 1973's Shotgun Willie, as he has since 1979 or so. The set list could certainly be viewed as a career retrospective, reaching back to 1961 ("Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away") and stretching through the Outlaw years ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain") on up to the new millennium, when collaborating with Nelson has perhaps become the litmus test for artists seeking legitimacy ("Beer for My Horses," with Toby Keith) or just a chance to hang out and smoke a bowl or six ("Superman," with Snoop Dogg).
The hair isn't so red anymore, and the cowboy hat (replaced with the signature red bandanna about halfway through) can't disguise how small the man actually is. But when you hear that voice, only more distinctive after more than four decades of failed marriages, IRS troubles and personal tragedy, the years really do fall away, and you're taken back to the first time you heard Willie sing "Georgia on My Mind."
Even with a catalog of 50 albums and close to 150 singles, Willie doesn't mix it up much. Though there are some songs he's said he won't play anymore because of painful memories, his arsenal is still a formidable one. Rocks Off has had the privilege of seeing Nelson perform three times, and we don't think we'll ever get tired of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" or "Always on My Mind."
Musically, the show was a bit of a different story. The Family, his backing band of 40 years, ebbed and flowed as best they could considering Willie's frequent...flubs? Lapses?