Willie Nelson at the Illinois State Fair (Aug 19, 2001)

August 20, 2001
by Matthew Dietrich

If there was a single song that summed up the atmosphere of Willie Nelson’s show Wednesday at the Illinois State Fair Grandstand, it might have been his tender take on “Rainbow Connection.”

The song was made famous, of course, by Kermit the Frog.  But delivered in Nelson’s burnished, uniquely quivering voice, the song became a touching commentary on life, hope and dreams from someone who has seen plenty.

“Who said that every wish/would be heard and asnwered.” goes one especially effective line.  Hearing it from Willie Nelson, who has overcome his share of adversity in his 68 years, that line seemed especially appropriate.  Not necessarily a lecture or warning, but more a message to never lose hope, even when your wishes seem ignored. 

Nelson’s return to th state fair, where he became an annual attraction during the administration of Gov. Jim Thompson, felt much like a homecoming.  Nelson’s 13th appearance at the Grandstand came 11 years after his last show there, in 1990.

In the years since Nelson stopped playing the fair, he because a bigger star than ever ,and his live shows shifted to a focus on versatility rather than the spirit of the country outlaw movement.

Wednesday’s show found Nelson rolling through an extensive set of songs he eithe wrote, made famous or just enjoys.

Like Bob Dylan, who played on the same state 72 hours earlier, Nelson is fond of deconstructing his best-known songs, often dropping them into different time signatures and experimenting generously with their melodies.

And like Dylan, the force of Nelson’s personality makes his onstage experimentation all the more worthwhile.

As always, he and his band, Family, opened with his signature “Whiskey RIver,” and rolled into “Good Hearted Woman,” which they converted into a speedy two-step.  The full Willie Nelson atmosphere was ensured when a giant Texas flag unfurled behind the band during “Whiskey River.”

“Well hello there,” Nelson exclaimed to the crowd after that song.  “It’ sbeen a long long time!  How am I doing?”

As the crowd of 4,028 thundered its favorable reaction, Nelson used that line as a seque into his touching ballad “Funny How Time Just Slips Away.”  As would often be the case throughout the show, Nelson played with the rhythm of the song and allowed his voice to meander around the original melody.

The seven-piece Family, as it did a a show a year ago at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, was in stripped-down instrumental form.  The only drum was a single snare drum, with additional rhythm coming from various hand percussion instruments.  Harmonica Player Mickey Raphael added color throughout the set.

The simple backing allowed Nelson’s voice and his distinct acoustic guitar solos to shine through.

There’s no other voice like that of Willie Nelson, and he uses it to great effect on ballads like “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Always on My Mind.”  Both seasoned and delicate, Nelson’s voice adds extra emotion to songs that are inherently emotional.

Nelson paced the show nicely, following each ballad with something upbeat.

Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train,” an upbeat version of Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” and a rocking take on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” were among the songs that helped maintain a party atmosphere in mid-set.  A medley of Hank Wiliams songs also kept the mood high.

As the show approached the two-hour point, a light rain had begun to fall.  Nelson apparently had been advised that a lot of rain was about to hit, and he told the crowd he’d try to beat the rain.

He didn’t.  As he and Family blasted through a joyous “I Saw the Light,” the skies opened, soaking the many audience members who continued to dance on an increasingly muddy track in front of the stage.

Few seemed to care.  Willie was back.

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