Willie Nelson, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (5/3/13)

photo: Keith Spera
by:  Alison Fensterstock

Country legend Willie Nelson, who hit his milestone 80th birthday last month, had his share of well-wishers in attendance at New Orleans Jazz Fest on Friday at the Gentilly Stage.  Signs kept appearing on the big screen: “Happy 80th birthday Willie and many more,” and “Happy 80th from beer stand #9.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of fans sported bandanas wrapped around their foreheads.Keithspera5

Nelson’s latest album is “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, a popular songbook collection released in mid-April. On Friday, he only played a few songs from it — including the title track, and “South of the Border” — preferring to stick to his own familiar set list. Pound for pound, though, Nelson himself has made plenty of blue-ribbon contributions to the great American songbook, and Friday he performed plenty — both those made famous by others, like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and those, like “You Were Always on my Mind” and “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” that are associated indelibly with his nasal twang, behind-the-beat delivery and mellow smile.keithspera9

At 80, Nelson looks a bit shrunken, and he meandered through most of the first part of his set sleepily. He sung-talked many lyrics without particular regard to melody, and let several songs slide into one another with a sort of stream-of-consciousness effect — “Funny How Time Slips Away” wandered into “Crazy,” which became “Nightlife.”keithspera3

But an old dog napping on the rug can still get up and bite, and that’s exactly what Nelson did midway through his hour and change on the Gentilly Stage. He revved his engine for a Hank Williams trifecta — “Jambalaya”, featuring a chiming solo from his longtime piano player (and sister) Bobbie Lee, “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Move it on Over.” He made his guitar step lively for a speedy “Georgia on a Fast Train,” and caressed it through the moody tango “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

As the clock ticked past 7 p.m., Jazz Fest closing time, Nelson was joined onstage by Marcia Ball, Holly Williams and two other women (help me out here, readers) for a rousing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The guests stayed for the closing “I Saw The Light” — Williams had closed her own set earlier Friday with her grandfather’s gospel classic — that went into the New Orleans second-line favorite “I’ll Fly Away.”

“80 years old,” read a tweet sent during the final songs of Willie Nelson’s set, “and he still plays past last call.”

In between the two closing gospel numbers, Nelson inserted his own praise song.

“Here’s a little gospel song,” he said, “called ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.'”

When he does, and if they do, you can bet it’ll still pack a punch.

all photos: Keith Spera

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