by: Stephen Peeples
[KHTS] – American music legend Willie Nelson & Family brought their signature Texas sound to the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons Saturday night, delivering a roughly 90-minute set of perennial Nelson originals, classic covers and a couple newer songs for a sold-out audience.
Nelson, who turns 81 on April 29, was in good spirits, with a friendly, mile-wide grin. His distinctly reedy voice was strong, and his fingers were facile on the frets of his road-thrashed but trusty 1969 Martin N20 acoustic guitar, nicknamed Trigger.
Throughout the 27-song set, Nelson characteristically sang around the beat and played his jazzy, mostly improvised solos nearly as well as he did when this reviewer first saw him perform in Austin in 1975, at his third annual Fourth of July Picnic. After another 39 years on the road, he has mellowed, as one would certainly expect, but his celebrated chops as a guitarist remain impressive.
You could call Santa Clarita a three-bandana show. That’s how many headbands Nelson chucked out into the audience for lucky fans in the rows close to left, right and center stage.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real featuring Nelson’s twentysomething sons Lukas and Micah opened the concert.
Fronted by Lukas on lead vocals and guitar with Micah on percussion, P.O.T.R. (as they’re known to fans) performed a powerful 40-minute set of bluesy-rock originals from the band’s four indie CDs (three studio, the most recent live — “Live Endings” from 2012).
Country Star to Outlaw Icon: A Bit of Willie Background for Context
Originally from Abbott, Texas, Nelson has lived back in the Lone Star state since the early 1970s. He had fled the creative constraints of the country music establishment in Nashville, where he had earned his first fame and fortune as a songwriter and recording artist in the early ‘60s.
These events are at the core of his original repertoire, which spans more than half a century, and his celebrated reputation as a country music outlaw and unapologetic marijuana advocate.
Nelson has more than 100 albums in his catalog, on Liberty, RCA, Atlantic, Columbia, Rhino and a slew of indie labels. He has earned seven Grammy awards, the first for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in 1976 (from ‘75’s “Red-Headed Stranger,” his first album for Columbia and breakthrough to the big-time) and the most recent for “Lost Highway” (a duet with his former boss, Ray Price) in 2007. Nelson picked up the
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
Recognized as an American icon by fans ranging from rednecks to royalty around the world, Nelson was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1998. He’s also appeared in films like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “The Electric Horseman,” and is a best-selling author.
His colorful history is well documented, probably most completely by his books including “Willie: An Autobiography” (with Bud Shrake; Simon & Schuster, 1988) and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road” (with illustrations by son Micah and foreword by Kinky Friedman, another colorful Texan; William Morrow, 2012).
Also essential are Texas Monthly writer and Stevie Ray Vaughan biographer Joe Nick Patoski’s award-winning biography “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” (Little, Brown, 2008), and, of course, Nelson’s own website. A short bio is included in a PAC preview by this writer.
The Family that Plays Together: The Santa Clarita Lineups
PAC, Nelson shared the stage with his “little sister” Bobbie (age 83), on her baby grand piano, drummer-percussionist Paul English (also in his early 80s) and harmonica master Mickey Raphael (62), who have all been touring and recording as members of the Family band for 40-plus years.
Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah played electric guitar and percussion, respectively, in their father’s band.
Rounding out the Family lineup were electric and upright bassist Kevin Smith (who joined in 2011 after longtime member Bee Spears died) and drummer/percussionist Billy English, Paul’s brother, who played most of the show using brushes on a kit stripped down to a snare drum. Nelson’s daughter Amy joined the Family to harmonize on the closing gospel medley.
And few in the audience seemed to notice, but actor-drummer John Stamos, a friend of Lukas’s, joined the band on percussion for the medley.
Sons Lukas & Micah Playing Musical Opening Acts on ‘To All the Girls…’ Tour
Along with Lukas and Micah Nelson, Promise of the Real features bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony LoGerfo and percussionist Tato Melgar.
Micah Nelson also leads his own band, Insects vs. Robots, an experimental psychedelic outfit that opened his dad’s concert at The Wiltern in Los Angeles last Wednesday night, and includes Lukas as well.
The sons’ bands, based in Venice, Calif., and Maui, Hawaii, are getting valuable exposure as they alternate the opening slot on the current leg of an extended tour supporting Willie’s latest album, “To All the Girls…,” released by Legacy/Sony in October.
The collection includes warm and tender (and occasionally rollicking) duets with equally esteemed female vocalists, among them Wynona Judd, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Roseanne Cash, Mavis Staples, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus, Carrie Underwood, Shelby Lynne and more.
On this Western swing, along with the Santa Clarita date, Nelson’s “Rollin’ Smoke Revue” (four huge tour buses and a full-length semi-trailer full of equipment) rolled into Riverside April 1, L.A. April 2, and San Diego April 4. After Santa Clarita, Nelson and family headed north to Davis (April 9), Carmel (April 10) and Berkeley (April 11).
Willie Nelson & Family’s Santa Clarita Set
It’s impossible to pack all of Nelson’s greatest hits and fan favorites into a 90-minute show, or even the two-hour-plus marathons the Family band played in the ‘70s and ‘80s. (more…)