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by: Craig Hlavat
Seeing the legendary Willie Nelson live is like visiting the Alamo, eating something fried and bad for you at the State Fair in Dallas, taking in a Friday night high school football game, staring at God’s dusty creations in West Texas, gazing up at the San Jacinto Monument on a sweltering afternoon, or getting a bag full of Whataburger at 2 a.m. These are timeless Texas traditions that everyone should do at least once, or multiple times if they are lucky.
Willie Nelson played Houston’s House of Blues on Tuesday night, and he brought fellow aging Texas gunslinger Billy Joe Shaver with him as opening support.
Shaver is currently touring behind a new album, “Long in the Tooth,” which sounds nothing but. Houston’s favorite upright bassist Nick Gaitan was on the lead rumble for Shaver, as he has been for a few year now. Shaver looked great in front Willie’s large Texas flag backdrop. Who else but these two artists could have a Texas flag as big as a house as their stage backdrop? ZZ Top? George Strait? Beyonce? OK, that might be a stretch.
I’ve broken down the Willie Nelson show experience in alphabet form before, if you need a bit more enlightenment.
I’ve said plenty of times in the past — at the Houston Chronicle and at other outlets — that Willie is a finite resource, a resource which you should partake in at least once a year while you are still both breathing the same air. Last night was just one of many nights that have affirmed that. The 81-year-old country monolith became a fifth degree black belt this past year in the Austin area, which makes him easily one of the most dangerous octogenarians in Texas.
Tuesday night’s show was marked by Willie charming licks from his sidekick guitar Trigger, a boisterous crowd, and the faint hint of greenery in the air. (Spoiler alert: Nelson opened the show with “Whiskey River,” like he has done since before most of us were born. There no was no immediate tally on how much whiskey was actually consumed at the show at press time.)
Three songs into the show I made it to the back bar where someone’s grandmother breathed in the air deeply as a concertgoer nearby puffed away on something still illegal in Texas (for now).
“Oh, that takes me back! It’s not even skunk weed!” she exclaimed about a good foot below me as she tried to buy me a shot, a beer, and another drink after that. It’s a school night, ma’am.
At the merch table, Willie’s people were selling an array of shirts, bandanas, vinyl, compact discs, and even a stuffed, Muppet-like Willie doll, one of which is currently staring at me as I type this.
Willie hit all the hallmarks last night, including “Still Is Still Moving to Me”, “Beer for My Horses”, “Good Hearted Woman”, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind”. When you watch Willie onstage, backed by his usual cohorts, you have to take a few minutes to drink it all in. Watch the strings on Trigger vibrate, see Paul English set the tempo, and smile at the delicate way Mickey Raphael coaxes sound from his harmonica.
Lately he has made a point of closing shows with a run of spirituals to send us off into the night with the Lord in our hearts. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, “I’ll Fly Away”, and “I Saw the Light” turned the House of Blues into a gospel revival, though hearing a few thousand slurring voices singing about the sweet by and by probably brings about a mighty tsk from the man upstairs. “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” is easily a modern hymn of Willie’s own design, praising the natural relaxant.
One last thought: My Christmas wish is for Houston fans to shut up during concerts. I know, it’s a rote request but at Willie shows it somehow burns a bit more. Even during songs like “Always On My Mind” I could hear conversations about horrible bosses, jerk neighbors, and the current whereabouts of ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends.
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