Willie Nelson in Duluth, MN (1983 – 2005)


Willie Nelson in Duluth 1983

When Willie Nelson was booked to play a concert at Wade Stadium in 1983, among the least star-struck people in town were neighbors of the West End ballpark.

There were concerns about parking, noise and property damage. Or as the concert promoter, Tracy Lundeen, remembered it Wednesday: “Just a bunch of undesirable concert people drinking beer and going to the stadium.”

The Duluth City Council voted twice on whether to host the outlaw country star at the outdoor venue, first reaching a deadlock and then approving it.

Nelson returns Saturday for his fifth show in Duluth since that controversial concert. The lineup includes homegrown Trampled By Turtles and 4onthefloor, a Minneapolis band that includes four bass drums.

In honor of the braided and bandana-ed icon’s concert, here is a look at Willie Nelson’s previous shows (and a no-show) in Duluth.

July 1983 Wade Stadium

Nelson took the stage to little fanfare. A pre-show parachute demonstration had the audience’s attention when he walked out to see what was going on, dressed in a blue sleeveless T-shirt, jeans and running shoes.

He reportedly put up his hand and wiggled his fingers when a roar went up through the crowd, then started the show with his trademark opener “Whiskey River.”

About 10,000 people were in the audience for the show that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band opened. Nelson played 36 songs — he played “On the Road Again” twice — in the 2 hour, 15 minute show.

As for concerns about the show drawing the wrong element to the neighborhood: Unfounded. Complaints included a woman who kept trying to sneak into the ballpark and a kid who rode across some neighboring lawns — which was not related to the show.

March 1992 DECC Arena

Nelson’s first concert in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Arena turned into a case for Nancy Drew: Who stole the tequila sign?

A 8-by-16-foot poster depicting a bottle of Jose Cuervo, a guitar and a banner that said “Jose Cuervo welcomes Willie Nelson and Family” was near the stage during the concert — and found its way out the door during the encore.

The unofficial souvenir was worth $3,500, according to tour representatives.

Management for the tequila company asked for it to be returned, no questions asked. Another rep sweetened the pot by adding Cuervo gear and an autographed photo of Willie Nelson to the person who returned it.

The poster was returned, and the promised ransom was sent c/o RT Quinlan’s.

April 1999 DECC Auditorium

A News Tribune reviewer said this show was better suited for a smoky honky tonk than the posh seating in the DECC Auditorium. But fans must have been grateful for the padded seats during this marathon performance:

Nelson played 50 songs during the 2 hour, 45 minute show that, of course, opened with “Whiskey River.”

From the review: “Halfway through the encore a giant American flag came down, covering the Texas flag that unfurled at the show’s beginning. He finished the first encore with a rousing ‘The Party’s Over’ and the gospel-tinged ‘I Saw the Light.’

“Nelson stepped out for a couple more songs finishing with ‘Good Old Mountain Dew’ before tossing his red bandana to the crowd and shaking hands with the front-row fans.

“On the way out, a woman said of the 66-year-old performer, ‘He makes the 20-year-olds look bad.’ ”

July 2004 Green Man Festival

Willie Nelson had carpal tunnel surgery in May 2004 — but said he would still play the Green Man Festival in mid-July at Spirit Mountain.

But recovery took longer than the 71-year-old planned and he did eventually cancel the gig. Local band Low took over headlining duties.

August 2005 DECC Auditorium

Fully recovered, Nelson made his way back to Duluth for a show at the DECC Auditorium — and pulled a hippie stunt befitting his lifestyle.

He purchased fuel for his tour bus from members of the Duluth Biodiesel Cooperative.

A News Tribune reviewer said Nelson’s fingers still had the speed of woodpeckers.

“Each time Nelson plays a song it’s subtly unique, like a fingerprint. That’s the difference between someone who plays music and a musician. Willie Nelson is one of the finest American musicians alive today and, at 72, he’s not skating on that reputation.

“The troubadour looked appropriately iconic … the thin ropes of his red-gray braids hanging down his chest. A red, white and blue neck strap held up his 1969 Martin guitar, Trigger, the hardest-working, most pathetic-looking guitar in showbiz.”

Again, he opened for the sold-out crowd with “Whiskey River.” And again, he stuck around and shook hands with folks in the front row afterward.

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