Willie Nelson and Family in Kansas City (3/12/2010)

photo by Chuck France

by Timothy Finn

For more than 100 minutes, Nelson kept more than 1,300 fans inside the Star Pavilion at Ameristar Casino in his warm, charming thrall.

The setup was the usual: Nelson backed by his touring band, which includes his sister, Bobbie on piano, and best-friends-forever Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Paul English on brushes/snare. With minimal pomp or flash, they provided the perfect backdrop to Nelson’s inimitable voice and his gorgeous guitar play.

photo by Chuck France

His set list visited not only his own star-spangled catalog, but also the famous songs of other titans, like Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee”), Waylon Jennings (“Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “Good-Hearted Woman”) and Hank Williams (“Jambalaya,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Move It On Over”), a few standards (“All of Me”) plus a few traditional hymns (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I Saw the Light, “I’ll Fly Away”).

He tossed in a medley or two and ignored some of his best latter-day work (like the woefully under-appreciated “Spirit” album) for something mediocre (“Beer For My Horses”), but a large chunk of setlist comprised full versions of the greatest hits of one of our greatest songwriters: “Whiskey River,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Georgia,” “Crazy,” “You Were Always On My Mind,” “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain” and the lovely and redemptive “Healing Hands of Time.”

Just as impressive as his performance was Nelson’s rapport with his audience.  He sang “Happy Birthday” to a woman his age and all night tossed red bandanas into a crowd that also included children younger than 10 and ladies in their 20s. (He’d loop the bandana around the neck of his warhorse guitar, Trigger, tie it, wear it for a few songs, then pitch it into the front rows).

All night, fans walked up to the front of the stage to snap a photo or leave a gift. One man left a red U.S.  Marine Corps wind-breaker at the foot of the stage. A woman left a bra. About the time the show hit the 90-minute mark, Raphael looked like it might be closing time, but Willie must have been in the mood for more.

So the show continued with another song or two, including “I Gotta Get Drunk.” By the time he’d issued his final thank-you and farewell, fans had lined the front of the stage, so Nelson started shaking hands and signing stuff: shirts, scraps of paper, album covers. I waited around to see how long he’d obliged them all, but he outlasted me. I left after 10 minutes and he was still at it, signing and glad-handing like a homecoming hero. Time is slipping away from all of us, but it seems to have slowed its departure from Willie Nelson. 

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