Willie Nelson in Phoenix Last Night


by Larry Rodgers

At 75, Willie Nelson appears to have found the secret to staying young: play lots of music and lots of golf, not always in that order.

The American cultural icon sounded great and was in good spirits Sunday as he stormed through more than 25 songs in a 100-minute set at the Dodge Theatre in Phoenix.

He was in fine voices as he played many of the most famous songs from his Country Music Hall of Fame career, including On the Road Again, Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys, Crazy and Always On My Mind, and paid tribute to Hank Williams, his late pal Waylon Jennings and Steve Goodman with a handful of their tunes.

Nelson also took time to stretch out with his five-piece band, which included “my little sister, Bobbie” on piano, on instrumental breaks on such songs as Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground and Bloody Mary Morning.

Longtime fans know what a fabulous guitar player Nelson is. He’s the only guitarist in the band (except for bassist Bee Spears) and his work on Trigger, his battered 1969 Martin, was innovative and hypnotizing.

He and harmonica player Mickey Raphael traded solid riffs on the bluesy Rainy Day Blues. Nelson and Spears built a rising wall of sound on Bloody Mary Morning.

After Nelson, who didn’t waste much time on between-song banter, said, “Let’s do one for Waylon,” his sister dropped one of several great honky-tonk piano solos into Good Hearted Woman.

The percussion section of Nelson’s band is low-key but colorful.

The star’s song Me and Paul, one of the highlights on Sunday, immortalizes Nelson’s wanderings with drummer Paul English, who worked a snare with brushes for much of the evening.

English’s younger brother, Billy, threw in bits of tambourine, glockenspiel and shakers. “We’re not sure what Billy plays,” Nelson joked.

Other highlights included 1993’s Still Is Still Moving To Me, a fun, low-key version of Nelson’s Toby Keith duet, Beer For My Horses, a Williams medley including Jambalaya, Hey Good Lookin’ and Move It On Over and a singalong on Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

Standout Scottsdale guitarist Ray Herndon opened the show with a solid set including songs from his Livin’ the Dream album.

Backed by the Herndon Brothers Band, a Valley country institution, Herndon showed off some fancy fret work and his strong, deep vocals.

The funky Don’t Sell Yourself Short and the chugging Hard To Stop This Train, destined for Herndon’s next album, both were well-received.

Highlights from the current album included the comical My Dog Thinks I’m Elvis, a quiet cover of Kris Kristofferson’s Lovin’ Her Was Easier and the poignant Me and You, a Herndon-penned song that was a hit for Kenny Chesney.


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