Willie Nelson, at sold-out show in Chico (Review)


Thanks to Janis from Texas for this picture of Willie Nelson and Family, at the Fillmore

by Christine G.K. LaPado

He’s as iconic as the Indian head on an old Buffalo Nickel. If the United States had a queen, she’d have knighted him Sir Willie years ago for his monumental contribution to American music.

It’s a testament to his extraordinary fame that one doesn’t have to say “country singer-songwriter” (or “guitarist” or “political activist” or “actor” or “author”) as a descriptor in front of his name.

Everybody knows who Willie Nelson is, and what he does.

And everybody came out to see their hero at last Wednesday night’s sold-out show at Laxson Auditorium.

Opening for Nelson was his son Lukas Nelson and his band, The Promise of the Real. The four-piece blues/rock/jam band played an approximately 50-minute opening set consisting almost entirely of original songs, often evocative of such heavyweight rockers as Steve Winwood, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The younger Nelson even played his guitar, Jimi-style, with his teeth at one point.

Lukas Nelson led his electric bassist and two impressive drummers (one on a kit, one playing an assortment of hand percussion) through his lyrically refreshing tunes—sounding at times vocally just like a chip off the old, twanging block—ending the set with “Althea,” of Grateful Dead fame.

If one had any question at first as to whether Lukas could hold his own on stage or was only there as a result of nepotism, he laid any doubts to rest with his performance. The younger Nelson’s soul-filled voice and guitar-playing, combined with the mature (for such a young band) musical restraint and talent of his bandmates, was impressive. As he warmed up over the course of his set, it became obvious that he is a unique musical force in his own right. Akin to the proverbial velvet hammer, Lukas and his crew sneaked up on the crowd and knocked them dead.

After an intermission, Willie Nelson and his Family Band took the stage at 8:45 to a standing ovation.

Dressed all in black, wearing a black cowboy hat, and sporting a trademark, long, gray braid hanging forward over his left shoulder, Nelson and his band busted into “Whiskey River,” to a backdrop of a giant Lone Star flag and the delight of the enthusiastic crowd. “I love you, Willie!” someone yelled out in excitement.

For exactly one hour and a half, the irresistible 75-year-old and his trusty, well-worn, well-known, old Martin guitar named Trigger played song after hit song from Nelson’s six-decade career: “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “All of Me,” “On the Road Again,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”

Nelson and his band stretched out on “Milk Cow Blues,” from his 2000 album of the same name. His sister Bobbie Nelson (on piano), harmonica mainstay Mickey Raphael, son Lukas (on guitar) and Willie each traded solos round and round and round and round, never growing boring—always keeping the audience wanting more.

Willie’s new “I Ain’t Superman,” a rocking 12-bar blues written during his four months of recovery from carpal tunnel surgery in 2004, was, as I wrote in my notes, “totally cute.” As was “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” written during the same health-recovery period: “I used to fake a heart attack and fall down on the floor/ Even I don’t think that’s funny anymore.”

Willie reminded us, toward the end of the night, when he pointedly sang the lyric, “I’m your native son” during the well-known, heart-tugging, railroad-nostalgic “City of New Orleans,” that he is indeed our native son. And of that we should be damn proud.


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