Willie Nelson, National Treasure: A Review

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by Serene Dominic

Is it even possible to review a national treasure? Especially when that national treasure is one of the few remaining original players left who is still in the game and still cranking out records? There aren’t many people left whose careers stretch across as much of country music history as Willie Nelson’s has. One might have named the legend we just lost a few days ago, Ray Price, a man who helped give Nelson his start in country music and in whose band Nelson played bass for a time. Almost anyone else you can name is someone who has felt the influence of Willie Nelson and followed his lead as an outlaw and song stylist.

So in short, you can’t review a national treasure; you can only make observations about him.

Before Nelson mounted the slow-spinning Celebrity Theatre stage, we were treated to a set by Nelson’s son Lukas’ band, Promise of the Real. More blues-based than country, Lukas won steady approval from the crowd mostly during familiar pop covers like The Beatles’ “Something” and J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight,” where Lukas demonstrated he could play a guitar solo with his teeth. Lukas returned to play during his dad’s set but his electric guitar was never at a volume louder than Papa Willie’s battered old Martin guitar Trigger, a versatile instrument which at times sounded like an overdriven Gibson ES-335 that you’d hear on an old Chess record by Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry. There were some in the crowd almost as thrilled to see Trigger than the man himself.

Observation 1: Willie Nelson constantly plays guitar throughout the set, possibly doing more picking than singing. A lot of times he rushed the meter of a song so he could stick in a flourish of notes from his guitar directly after he expelled a line.

Observation 2: Like Dylan, Willie almost never sticks with the melody as recorded. It’s possible after half a century of singing “Funny How Times Slips Away,” the song he originally wrote for Billy Walker, he’s still open to new ways of singing it, such as talking out the lyrics completely. After “Funny,” he did two other songs that established him as a songwriter of note in Nashville, “Crazy,” which became a signature song for Patsy Cline and “Night Life.” On the latter, he picked an impressive blues solo, which he capped off with a bar or two of “Jingle Bells.”

Observation 3: Willie Nelson is to bandanas what Elvis was to neck scarfs. At several points in the show, Willie ripped a red kerchief off his head and tossed it to a fan in the front — a move he repeated a dozen times.

Observation 4: He doesn’t stop! As a national treasure, the man doesn’t need to work that hard and yet he called out songs with almost no breathing space between, never left the stage even during instrumentals that showcased another soloist like his “little sister” Bobbie on piano and never appeared to stop and take a sip of water.

Observation 5: Bobbie Nelson’s face is obscured at all times. I don’t know if it’s her short stature combined with the height of her piano bench, the length of her hair and a pulled-down cowboy hat, but it was near impossible to see her face throughout the set. Oftentimes, it looked as if Cousin It from “The Addams Family” was tickling the ivories.

Observation 6: Willie Nelson hardly banters beyond saying, “Let’s do one for Waylon” or “How about some Hank Williams?” He did four Hank songs last night and if he did “Help Me Make it Through the Night” as a tribute to Ray Price, he didn’t say.

Observation 7: Willie Nelson has had four wives but only one drummer in 40 years, that being Paul English, who he pays tribute to in the song “Me and Paul.” It’s a funny number, one that catalogs their troubles with the law when on tour. Favorite line: “Almost busted in Laredo, for reasons I can’t disclose/But if you’re stayin’ in a motel there and leave, Just don’t leave nothin’ in your clothes.”

Observation 8: Without the cheesy presence of Julio Iglesias, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” is a pretty melancholy song. The lyrics were written by the late Hal David, one of his most lucrative copyrights outside of his partnership with Burt Bacharach.

Observation 9: When the gospel tunes come out, it’s almost time for the house lights to come up. The family rolled out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” in unspoken tribute to the Lord. But Willie had the good irreverent sense to stick “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” in the middle of this gospel block.

And with that, Willie Nelson and Family took us through The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael, Brenda Lee, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Goodman, Waylon Jennings, Billie Joe Shaver and Toby Keith with a whole lot of Willie Nelson in between. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Willie Nelson set list

Whiskey River
Still Is Still Moving to Me
Beer for My Horses (Toby Keith cover)
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings cover)
Funny How Time Slips Away
Crazy
Night Life
Piano instrumental
Me and Paul
Help Me Make It Through the Night (Kris Kristofferson cover)
Shoeshine Man (Tom T. Hall cover)
Instrumental
Jambalaya (On the Bayou) (Hank Williams cover)
Hey Good Lookin’ (Hank Williams cover)
Move It on Over (Hank Williams cover)
Georgia on My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael cover)
Texas Flood (Lukas Nelson sings)
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always on My Mind
City of New Orleans (Steve Goodman cover)
To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before
I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver cover)
Will the Circle Be UnbrokenI’ll Fly AwayRoll Me Up and Smoke Me When I DieI Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover)

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