Willie Nelson at the Fillmore

By Jim Harrington

Willie Nelson and the Fillmore go together like peanut butter pretzels and strawberry-lime Jell-O.If that doesn’t sound like a tantalizing combo to you, then you’re probably not smoking the same stuff that Willie does.

The country crooner’s semiannual multinight stand at San Francisco’s most hallowed rock venue has become the stuff of Bay Area legend over the years. This time around, he’s performing five shows in five nights at the Fillmore, and all of them are sold out.

On Monday, the 73-year-old Texan illustrated exactly why tickets to these concerts are in such high demand. Nelson, as during previous outings at the Fillmore, put on a two-hour show that was filled with dozens of the best country songs of all time.

Backed by his regular Family band, which includes sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, harmonica whiz Mickey Raphael and longtime drummer Paul English, the cowboy quickly dug his spurs in and kicked off the show with the traditional opener, “Whiskey River.”

The energetic musician, who has already released five albums this year, followed with a fine medley of the classics “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” He then turned to his buddy Kris Kristofferson’s songbook for “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McGee” (which always sounds better at the Fillmore than anywhere else, no matter who’s doing the singing) and “Moment of Forever.”

Nelson trotted out many of the old standbys early in the concert, including “Good Hearted Women” (which he dedicated to the late Waylon Jennings), “Me and Paul” and “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time.” One of the better moments of the show’s first half came with a color-coded pairing of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” — which hails from Nelson’s best album, 1975’s “Red Headed Stranger” — and “Blue Skies.” The latter, an Irving Berlin composition, marked the singer’s entry into the Great American Songbook, and he would follow with solid renditions of “Georgia On My Mind” and “All of Me,” both of which were recorded on the 1978 classic “Stardust.”

Up to this point, Nelson had done a pretty good job with his vocals. His guitar work, however, was phenomenal. That’s an aspect of his game that is often overlooked. Nelson’s rhythm work has a bit of a basketball bounce to it and he picks out leads that are intriguingly circular. He’s not a burner (at least not with the guitar), but he’s definitely able to command the crowd’s attention with his licks.

Halfway through the concert, Nelson really seemed to get into the swing of things and his vocals greatly improved. Maybe it just took some time for his voice to warm up. More likely, the turning point was when Nelson stopped playing the songs he thought the crowd wanted to hear and started performing the songs he wanted to sing.

Nelson sounded like a new man after he finished up the expected hits “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Always On My Mind” and dove into the Hank Williams Sr. numbers “Hey, Good Lookin'” and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”

He kept right on rolling through a few of his better-known recordings, including his cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” but he saved his best work for the newer songs. One such keeper was “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” which includes the great lyric, “I used to fake a heart attack and fall down on the floor / But even I don’t think that’s funny anymore.”

Write Jim Harrington of the Oakland Tribune at jharrington@angnewspapers.com

WHO: Willie Nelson
WHEN: 8 tonight and Thursday
WHERE: Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., S.F.
HOW MUCH: $55 (currently listed as sold out)
CONTACT: 925-685-8497
www.ticketmaster.com, www.livenation.com

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