Micah Nelson, Willie Nelson, Mickey Raphael
by: Brett Leigh Dicks
There are a handful of givens at a Willie Nelson concert. The first is that he is going to amble on stage clasping the world-weary, well-worn acoustic guitar that he affectionately calls “Trigger.” The second is that when Nelson and his cohorts ease their way into the evening, they are going to do so with the eternal country stomp “Whiskey River.” And the third is that across the course of the night, a barrage of music’s most iconic compositions will fly from the stage as freely as Willie Nelson signature bandanas. Not to imply that any of this makes a musical rendezvous with the Nelson collective predictable. Far from it; but there is a degree of solace to be found in such certainties.
With “Whiskey River” soon giving way to “Beer for My Horses” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” during Nelson’s performance at the Canyon Club last week, it wasn’t until he was firmly in the midst of “Crazy” — a song he wrote but Patsy Cline planted firmly within the greater consciousness — that he and the band found their mark. This was something they subsequently confirmed with “Down Yonder.” With the song riding on the throes of his sister Bobbie’s honky-tonk piano, the stage was quickly set for a musical volley. First were a couple of offerings from the pen of fellow country outlaw Kris Kristofferson, in the form of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Nelson then turned in a stirring rendition of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” — a song that not only provides the life blood to Nelson’s seminal 1975 album Red Headed Stranger, but was also reputedly the last song Elvis Presley ever performed. With the crowd firmly in his grasp, Nelson passed the musical spotlight to his son Lukas. The junior of the Nelsons not only led the vocalizing, but surged the ensemble through the blues-drenched “Texas Flood” on the back of his blistering guitar work before “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again” redirected the evening yet again.
Furthering the Presley connection, “Always on My Mind” was given a thoughtful airiness. While Brenda Lee first recorded the composition and Elvis Presley entrenched it firmly within the charts, it was in Nelson’s a hands that it was finally taken to No. 1 position — a feat that was also repeated by the next offering, “All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Having paid tribute to Kristofferson, it was only fitting that a Hank Williams offering should follow suit. And that came through the collective offering of “Jambalaya,” “Move It on Over” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
Throughout the years, Nelson has collaborated with a bevy of cohorts. From his musical sojourning with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, through his undertakings with the Beach Boys and Julio Iglesias, Nelson has bucked convention at every turn. He has worked with stalwarts like Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon and contemporary talents the caliber of Ben Harper, Kid Rock and Los Lonely Boys. He has even made an album with Ryan Adams.
While the night was already peppered with numerous musical tangents — including country, blues and honky-tonk — perhaps the most stirring moment was when Nelson wandered the gospel path. Both Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” and Nelson’s own “I’ll Fly Away” were sublime. With a harmonica blazing and the audience clapping, Nelson pointed and preached as his ensemble bristled around him. Such an inspiring offering could only be superseded by something very special, “Georgia on My Mind” where Nelson’s rasping vocals cut effortlessly to the essence of the song.
He might be 75 years old, and he might spend more days on the road each year than he does at home, but there is nothing tiresome about Willie Nelson. Sure, his vocal delivery can be a little more laconic these days, and his beloved Trigger worse for the wear, but Nelson clearly loves being in front of an audience. His performance harks back to a time when bands took to the stage to entertain and when folks came to share in that. Sure, there are some things in life that are certain, and some of those take place at a Willie Nelson concert. But in a musical world that is changing every day, the last thing any of us should do is to take these things for granted.