Willie Nelson is Brilliant

photo:  Frederic Breedon

by Gene Sprout

Willie Nelson is no Superman.

“Too many pain pills and too much pot/ Trying to be something that I’m not,” he sings in “Superman” from the 2009 album, “Lost Highway.”

The humorous, self-effacing tune, which Nelson performed Friday night at Marymoor Park, was a reminder that even a country icon has his limits. Especially an 80-year-old country icon.

Nonetheless, the native Texan with the rich, reedy voice and unorthodox phrasing rolled out hit after hit in a 90-minute show that stretched to nearly 30 songs, beginning with “Whiskey River” and closing with “I Saw the Light” — bookends, perhaps, for a narrative about sin and salvation.

A large crowd cheered him on, singing along to the boisterous “Beer for My Horses” and whooping it up for the Waylon Jennings classic, “Good Hearted Woman.”

Though his voice was slow to warm up, Nelson was off and running a few songs into a set that raced from song to song with minimal commentary from the laconic star. Playing “Trigger,” the battered acoustic guitar that has served him for decades, Nelson showed flashes of brilliance on such songs as “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and the jazz-inflected “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).”

Backing him was his long-running “family” band, featuring his sister Bobbie Nelson on grand piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Paul English on drums (or make that drum, since English played only a single snare). English was the “Paul” in the autobiographical song “Paul and Me” about Nelson’s early days on the road.

“Funny How Time Slips Away” was especially poignant given the length and breadth of Nelson’s career and the fellow country stars he has outlived, from Patsy Cline to Roy Orbison (he wrote hits for both). The old song seems to have taken on additional meaning late in Nelson’s career.

A boisterous selection of songs by Hank Williams Sr. — “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin’ “ and “Move It On Over” — ended with Nelson tossing his red bandana to concertgoers, who screamed like teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert.

The audience merrily clapped along to “On the Road Again” and swooned to the tender “Always on My Mind,” featuring nice harmonica fills by Raphael.

Late in the show, opening act the Wild Feathers, a promising, harmony-laden country-rock band from Nashville, lent their voices to a rousing version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Before closing with “I Saw the Light,” Nelson performed the wonderfully irreverent “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a late-career hit reflecting the rogue charm at the heart of Nelson’s timeless appeal.


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