Willie Nelson & Family in Sugarland, TX (Nov. 25, 2018)

photo:  Violeta Alvarez

by:  Jesse Sandejas, Jr.

Willie Nelson & Family
Smart Financial Centre
November 25, 2018

Last week, we reserved an entire day to show gratitude to those who’ve made lasting and favorable impressions on our lives. When Thanksgiving Day ended, we started searching for gifts to celebrate those we honor. Getting to see Willie Nelson perform live last night at Smart Financial Centre was the perfect holiday season mashup. It was a chance for an appreciative crowd to thank the man for six decades of music. It was also a gift for many in the audience to see the legendary songwriter and his band perform live.

Nelson’s uniquely familiar visage was first visible to the audience at 8:20 p.m. and it earned him a standing ovation before he ever played a note. He beckoned everyone to be seated, then tossed his jacket off with abandon and grabbed his guitar, Trigger, whose place in music history is as entrenched as Nelson’s. The show opened with “Whiskey River” and everything to follow flowed quickly as a rushing stream. Nelson packed 20 songs into a set which ended promptly at 9:20 p.m. and it was an hour Nelson’s Houston fans would forever cherish.

The show sped along because there wasn’t much stage banter between Willie and the crowd. He didn’t offer extended monologues on all he’s experienced in a legendary music career or uncommon personal life. After all this time, what more is there really to say? Everything anyone needed to know was in the music and in the exchanges of thanks the artist and audience shared between songs.

The backdrop was a Texas flag, broad as the entire stage, there just in case you forgot where you were, which was impossible. Maybe “Good Hearted Woman” put you two-steppin’ in a honky tonk. Perhaps “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” recalled the time you and your buddies warbled it on the tailgate parking lot before the team from Dallas lined up against your Houston Texans. Did you recall a tender moment when Willie sang “You Were Always on My Mind”? Whatever memories the songs retrieved, those memories all sounded like they took place in Texas.

Nelson’s voice sounded fine. Before the show, lots of folks warned he doesn’t sing so much as he recites his lyrics these days. He did go the narrative route on a tune or two – particularly “On the Road Again,” on which the audience did much of the heavy lifting. But, he also sang a lot. His voice was eloquent on a moving rendition of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and he was downright jazzy on “Still Is Still Moving to Me.”

The show was definitely a country show, but Nelson’s lifelong affair with jazz was evident all night, if not so much in song arrangements then certainly in his playing. He and his sister, Bobbie (whom he proudly introduced as a recent Texas Music Hall of Fame inductee) moved from the honky tonk to a backwoods juke joint for Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages.” On that one, he let Trigger roam around a bit and everyone in the crowd was treated to the guitar’s one-of-a-kind tone. It was as signature a moment as Nelson playing something like “Crazy” or “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” – neither of which made last night’s set list. If omitting those meant more time for the Nelson siblings to trade jazzy inflections on their instruments of choice, the trade was absolutely worth it.

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