Story and photo by: Kevin Coffey
Not so bad.
The last time I saw Willie Nelson, I was disappointed. I figured that as the octogenarian continued to perform, his skills were slipping and chalked up the poor performance to that.
It must have just been an off night.
On Sunday at SumTur Amphitheater, he was wonderful. Sure, the 83-year-old doesn’t quite sound like he did 20 years ago, but he’s still capable of greatness.
Nelson and his band sprinted through a set of old favorites and tributes for an hour, and the country outlaw had a near capacity crowd on its feet as the sun went down. (In fact, it was an early show, and the whole thing was over before night fell.)
Throughout the show, fans hollered and shouted for songs such as “Whiskey River,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
As always, Nelson was joined by his family band that includes “little sister” Bobbie Nelson (actually two years Willie’s senior) on keys and “brother” Paul English (not actually Willie’s brother) on drums.
Nelson also had his beaten and battered trusty guitar, Trigger, and he used it to play lead for the whole show.
Nelson’s enigmatic playing style was in full effect. It’s so idiosyncratic that it’s almost punk rock. Nelson’s always been known for his playing, but these days it’s full of weird riffage, excellent little runs, odd phrasing and random strumming. For every on-point guitar solo, we got an improperly fingered chord.
The set was full of Nelson favorited and plenty of covers and tributes.
Strangely, Nelson didn’t play “On the Road Again,” and he also skipped “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” one of his usual standards.
I also hoped that opening act Kris Kristofferson would join his old friend for a song (maybe even “Highwayman), but it didn’t happen.
A legend in his own right, Kristofferson kicked off the evening with a 45-minute set that featured his own old tunes such as “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” as well as several covers.
Kristofferson’s guitar playing was excellent, and he sounded as great and gruff as ever. I only wish he would have played a few more of his own tunes.
But Kristofferson’s set was a little more of a tribute show. He sang Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” and he was joined by Haggard’s sons, Noel and Ben. They played guitar throughout the show and took lead vocals on “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Ramblin’ Fever.” Nelson also paid tribute to Haggard with he and Haggard’s “It’s All Going to Pot” as well as Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man.”
Nelson only spoke to the audience a few short times, and he got lots of laughs when he referred to his tune “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” as “a new gospel song we just wrote.”
When it came time to close the show, Nelson played “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as a medley with “I’ll Fly Away,” a song that saw the Haggard boys take the stage one time. As Nelson strummed Trigger one last time, fans stood and shouted out the words before cheering the outlaw as he left the stage.