Willie Nelson and Family in Peoria, IL

photo by Patrick  Traylor
By Danielle Hatch
Willie Nelson isn’t one of those fancy performers.

He needs to do little more than step out on the stage, wave, toss a few red bandanas into the audience and flash that friendly smile to get the crowd to worship him.

There’s no blinding light show, no outfit changes or multimedia accompaniment.

That’s not to say he didn’t give his Peoria fans what they came looking for Sunday night at the Peoria Civic Center Theater.  A nearly sold-out crowd of more than 2,200 was mesmerized by the lifelong showman and his deft guitar skills, a catalog of well-known and well-loved hits, and a solid backing band.

The word backstage was that Nelson’s tour bus didn’t roll into town until the 6 o’clock hour.  At 8 p.m. sharp, he stepped in front of the microphone, unannounced. He didn’t waste time on formalities, launching right into “Whiskey River” as a massive Texas flag unrolled from the rafters behind him.

His stage getup? Jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and a worn red, white and blue guitar strap that held “Trigger” in place.  And Trigger isn’t just any guitar; this worn road warrior (with a bit of a hole wearing through and what looks like a little duct tape) is pretty much a member of the band, adding twangy blues sounds on songs like “Crazy” and soaring right alongside Nelson’s voice on “Georgia on My Mind.”

It clung loyally to the side as Nelson pointed his finger in a disco-like move during “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”  On the slow, heartfelt ballads, Trigger sounds a little like what a man’s soul might if it could make noise.

Nelson and his band tore through a hefty list of hits, from “If You Got The Money, I Got The Time” to “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”  He turned the mike to the audience for “I’ll Fly Away” and they helped him out with singing, foot stomping, clapping and whistles.

About the band. You hardly notice them, and I mean that in a good way. They keep flawless rhythm with drums, maracas, a deep bass guitar, a 7-foot Steinway piano (played by Nelson’s big sister, Bobbie, who was stoic throughout the show but whose fingers seemed electrified). They get into the music – their cowboy boots tap steadily, and so do their cowboy hats – but they never take away from the main man.

Most of Nelson’s stage talk consisted of phrases like, “Well, hello there.” He’s not a storyteller on stage, which is fine – let him do what he does best. But, one can only wonder at the sights he’s seen over the years.

Throughout the show, he pointed and waved at the crowd and threw at least four of his signature red bandanas out to the sea of people. He stayed a few minutes after the show to sign autographs and admire homemade signs. It’s nice to know he makes time for the fans after all these years, and that he can sing tunes like “On the Road Again” with a fervor that suggests he really can’t wait to get to the next group of admirers.


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