Willie Nelson & Family @ Texas A&M (11/17/14)

photo:  Dave McDermand

by:  Rob Clark

It was a fitting entrance for a no-frills legend on Monday night. Willie Nelson sauntered out onto the simple stage setup at Rudder Auditorium, offered a quick wave and started playing.

The concert, presented by MSC OPAS, was a workmanlike affair — light on banter, heavy on the hits, starting (as always) with Johnny Bush’s Whiskey River.

He was clad in all black, but switched early on from a cowboy hat to his trademark bandana. Then every few songs, he’d switch that bandana out and toss the used one into the front of the crowd, like a blue-collar version of Elvis Presley’s old parade of souvenir scarves.

Nelson’s guitar playing — one of his more underrated strengths — was strong and vibrant in Still Is Still Moving to Me and Funny How Time Slips Away. Each time the focus turned to his longtime instrument Trigger, it was fascinating to watch him work. His sister Bobbie — known of course as Sister Bobbie — was near perfection on piano, from the well-known tracks to plunking her way through straight-out-of-a-saloon solos.

As he has demonstrated so many times over the years, Nelson loves digging into other artists’ music. He offered his take on Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night, Tom T. Hall’s Shoeshine Man and Hank Williams’ Hey Good Lookin’ and Jambalaya (On the Bayou).

Some of Nelson’s own tracks seemed to take on new life. Me and Paul, with its stories of intoxicated encounters, cracked up a good portion of the crowd. Nelson’s delivery made the song seem fresh, as if it centered around current Willie-on-the-bus adventures.

The pacing was curious as always. “Curious” is not meant as a dig — it’s just interesting to see how Nelson finds his way through a song. He would plow past the melody, or let it pass him by completely. Just one of those things that makes him Willie.

More than one longtime fan warned me beforehand that Nelson “talks more than he sings” now in concert. There’s truth to that, but Nelson is far from alone in that distinction. Anyone who has seen Mick Jagger perform in the past decade knows he basically barks — there’s no real singing there — but is still a wonder to see in person. Not all artists are as fortunate as James Taylor and Don Williams, who are blessed to sound remarkably similar as they did 40 years ago.

So yes, each line of Whiskey River trailed off at the end with a downward spoken note rather than the vocal flourish we know from hearing it on the radio for so many years. But Nelson’s voice frequently broke through that pattern, providing especially thrilling moments during Crazy, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, Always on My Mind and the show-closing gospel medley.

Another preshow warning: With as many hits as Nelson has, some will get overlooked. I made the mistake of declaring earlier in the day that Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain was my only must-hear track of the night. Naturally, that meant that we did not hear it Monday night. Though I was surprised at the song’s omission, it didn’t matter a lick.

This wasn’t about a roster of hits to mark off, or adding to anyone’s “best show ever” list. It didn’t matter how strong his voice was compared to his heyday, and it didn’t matter what direction and speed he chose to take during each song.

It was a chance to appreciate a true music legend. The crowd’s standing ovation at the show’s conclusion was less about the preceding 90 minutes and more about celebrating Nelson the man, and recognizing the role his music has played in many of our lives. It was well-deserved applause.

And then Nelson was gone, off to hit the road for a Tuesday night concert, part of a six-shows-in-seven-days stretch. Just another work week for an 81-year-old icon.

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