Willie Nelson and Family in New Orleans (Jan. 8, 2017) (Sold Out)

photo:  Chris Granger

Willie Nelson enchants a sold-out New Orleans crowd Sunday

by: Chelsea Brasted

Just before showtime at the House of Blues in New Orleans on Sunday (Jan. 8), white lights came on at stage left as an 83-year-old man with long braided pigtails and a black, long-sleeved puffer jacket was escorted to a seat just in the wings.

He folded his legs over each other and waited patiently as the crew made final adjustments until, slowly, he stood and his jacket was removed. Music started, and the man found his way to the guitar at centerstage.

With hands as mottled and as marked by time finally on the near-mythical instrument he calls Trigger, Willie Nelson came to life.

For just a little more than an hour, Nelson smiled and sang and strummed that guitar with the kind of loving comfort that can only come with decades of familiarity. The songs, too, were familiar to the jovial, honky tonk-like, sold-out crowd of chattering, beer-raising fans who lent help as a motley chorus.

photo:  Chris Granger

With a life spent writing, pioneering and playing music, Nelson’s appeal is as much about his role as a country music patriarch as it is about the novelty of seeing the charismatic, reefer mad octogenarian friend of Snoop Dogg. Just weeks ago, Dolly Parton, who reigns as the charming queen of country came to New Orleans for a stop at the Smoothie King Center, where she held court for more than two hours, telling stories and swapping bedazzled instruments in and out of her hands.

Not so with Nelson.

From the moment he wrapped his red, white and blue macrame guitar strap around his frame, Nelson didn’t bother with the stories. He instead let his music do the talking, and he and Trigger offered one blues-tinged solo after another, filling the space between “Whiskey River” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Nelson was joined in the effort by his touring band, known as the Family: Bobbie Nelson, Paul English, Billy English, Kevin Smith and harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who performed in New Orleans at in May 2016 as part of Chris Stapleton’s band.

Nelson eventually traded his bent-rim cowboy hat for the first of several red bandanas, each folded identically in a stack near his hip. He’d slip one over his braids, then tear it off after mere moments to toss to the first row or two with a smile and a blown kiss.

From the moment they set foot onstage, Nelson and his Family barely stopped, allowing nearly ever song to melt into the next. With Nelson leading charge with what’s now his nearly speaking-voice way of singing, they strolled into “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” Waylon Jennings’ “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and Billy Joe Shaver’s “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.” Fans hollered and clapped and cheered and occasionally held the final vowel on Nelson’s first name as they did so, leaving him to smile some more.

In a fit-for-TV finale, Nelson welcomed openers Runaway June to add their harmonies to “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the closing lines of “I’ll Fly Away,” which is exactly what he did.

Nelson placed Trigger back in its space, gave his final waves, blew kisses and threw bandanas before finding his way back to the darkness of the wings, to the warmth of his jacket and the satisfaction of a show well played.

See more of Chris Granger’s great photos here.

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