Willie Nelson pauses at The Grand’s side entrance just before his sold-out concert in Wilmington Sunday night. Photo: Ryan Cormier
by: Ryan Cormier
During his 90 minutes on stage, Willie Nelson let his towering body of work do most of the talking, piling hit after hit onto the adoring crowd at The Grand in Wilmington.
But before he closed his Sunday night show, Nelson did open up a little, noting that it was Father’s Day and wishing a happy holiday to all the dads in the audience before dedicating his next song to them.
Nelson and his sparse backing band then kicked off the lone song he would sing from his new album “Heroes,” a marijuana-themed duet recorded with rapper Snoop Dogg called “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
“Just take me out and build a roaring fire/And just roll me in the flames for about an hour,” he sang, in one of the odder Father Day tributes. “And then pull me out and twist me up and point me towards the sky/And roll me up and smoke me when I die.”
At 79, it’s clear that Nelson remains the quirky outlaw – even if he does wear grandpa pants.
Dressed with his trademark red bandanna on his head and a pair of New Balance sneakers on his feet, Nelson was showered with applause at nearly every turn by a sold-out crowd of 1,200. The country star showed he’s an American icon whose popularity seems as durable as ever.
Nelson’s still-strong and clear voice hummed and his idiosyncratic guitar work on trusted Trigger drew its own howls of approval as he breezed through some of his biggest songs right after another: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Always on My Mind.”
During a trio of Hank Williams songs – “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over” – it was hard not to think what Hank Williams would have sounded like nearing 80. Hopefully as good as Nelson, who was sharp and sturdy all night as if he had been preserved for safekeeping all this time.
More often than not, Nelson clung to medleys, giving fans bite-sized tastes of his swelling songbook, which dates back more than 50 years. Sometimes the fleeting moments with a song were not quite enough, perhaps stealing some of the emotional depth that could have developed throughout the concert.
After a couple of spirituals, including “I’ll Fly Away,” Nelson told the crowd goodnight as the band, led by longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, vamped. He then stood at the lip of the stage and signed shirts, hats, albums and stuffed animals for nearly anyone who wanted. Nelson exited out the side stage door to his legendary bus, Honeysuckle Rose IV, which was surrounded by more fans giving him a cheering send-off.
About an hour after the show, Willie and his bus were long gone, along with the crowds. Left behind were Nelson’s crew, loading up his gear with an eye on the next night’s tour stop in New Haven, Conn.
At the corner of Eighth and King streets, two of them were chatting while taking a break under the night’s sky. And from the smell of it, they were celebrating Father’s Day, too.