Willie Nelson & Family at the Houston Rodeo (3/4/2020)

Photo: John Shapley

by: Joey Guerra

Willie Nelson makes every Rodeo Houston show feel like the first time

Willie Nelson could — and often does — play multiple shows a year in the Houston-area. And it’s a must-see performance every time.

The country legend turns 87 next month and could have long ago hung up his hat with his head held high. There’s nothing left to prove and no one near his stature.

photo: John Shapley See lots more photos here.

But Nelson, who performed Wednesday night for a crowd of 70,479 at RodeoHouston, isn’t done with us yet. His 11th spin on the rotating stage was (another) study in subtle, steady showmanship.

After a few seconds of tuning, Nelson and his band kicked off with a jangly take on “Whiskey River.” Many of the songs — “Still is Still Moving to Me,” “Beer for my Horses” — sat at the same tempo. And when you’re Willie, that’s perfectly OK.Rhe show was also a family affair. Sister Bobbie Nelson was on piano, and son Lukas Nelson took a solo turn on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.”

“Let’s do one for Waylon!” Nelson shouted as he launched into “Good Hearted Woman.”

The setlist moved through his usual assortment of songs, all classics. And it’s to Nelson’s credit that he manages moments that are surprising. Even set closer “Will the Circle be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away” felt inspired.

He yelped “Mamma!” throughout “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” And the wry, witty trio of “It’s all Going to Pot” (more timely than ever), “Roll Me Up” and “Still Not Dead” was a highlight.

Nelson kicked things up with “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Jambalaya,” creating a noticeable swell in crowd energy. Just as quickly, he went wistful with “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” inspired a singalong during “On the Road Again” and delivered “It’s Hard to be Humble” with a knowing wink.

When Nelson launched into “Always on My Mind,” it sent a hush over the crowd. He raised his arm into the air during the choruses as the crowd listened intently, respectfully. It earned him the biggest reaction of the night.

He paused for a minute and waved with both hands to the crowd before descending offstage, slipping on a jacket and shaking a few hands. A black SUV whisked him away. And you can bet he’ll be back soon.

Joey Guerra is the music critic for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter. He will be covering every single RodeoHouston concert.

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