Concert date: 03/19/2008
Run date: 04/09/2008
When the 8:00 PM start time of Willie Nelson’s performance at the NorVa came and went without anyone but his road crew and sound men taking the stage, it didn’t take long for jokes about the reason for his tardiness to start flying.
“He probably just had a ‘smoke’ and lost track of time,” said someone, making air quotes at the appropriate juncture.
Okay, you’re right: it was me who said it, and I know damned well that I wasn’t the only one who was making that joke. The NorVa holds 1,500 people, and it’s a fair bet that there were at least that many one-liners uttered about Willie’s preferred choice of cigarette before the night was over. It’s no wonder the guy got busted for possession a couple of years ago; everybody knows of his pharmaceutical proclivities. I mean, my father and I went to the show together, and before we left, my mother – God bless her – told us to “watch out, because there’ll be a lot of people who’ll be,” and then pretended to take a toke from an invisible joint.
Once you get past the punch lines, however, the truth of the matter is that no one really cares about Willie’s weed. Not even my mother. The guy’s not just a country music legend, he’s a full-fledged American icon…and, even though he’s on the cusp of turning 75, he’s still one hell of a showman.
There are certain things about a Willie Nelson show that are to be accepted as a given, the first of which is that it will start with “Whiskey River,” and this night was no exception to that rule. What was a bit different was that the show was being broadcast live to the American troops over in Iraq, which may have something to do with why his latest single, a cover of Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger,” was nowhere to be found in his set. In fairness, however, it’s unlikely that too many people left disappointed by its omission, given how many other hits were performed during the course of the evening.
Willie’s shows aren’t quite as long as they used to be, but he still manages to pack a significant number of songs into his set list, thanks to his freewheeling delivery; the show was less than an hour and a half in length, but he nonetheless fit 26 songs into the course of the evening. (You can make that 27 if you want count the reprise of “Whiskey River” as a separate song.) The order of the evening was to have a good old fashioned sing-along amongst friends, with material selected from his own catalog as well as those of his friends, acquaintances, and personal heroes, and the majority of the audience was chiming in at every opportunity.
Although Willie tends to stick with the hits that he knows his fans want to hear, it’s a pleasure to find that “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” from 1993’s Across the Borderline, remains in his sets. It is, however, the inclusion that can truly be called unexpected. He does a solo rendition of “Beer for My Horses” (originally recorded with Toby Keith) to keep the current crop of country fans happy, then dives headlong into the classics, offering up “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Nightlife” before pausing to introduce his band, including drummer Paul English, otherwise known as the inspiration for the song “Me and Paul.” During the course of the evening, Willie also pays tribute to other longtime associates, including Waylon Jennings (“Good Hearted Woman”), Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McGee”), and, at least tangentially, Johnny Cash. (The Man in Black was often fond of covering “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away,” songs which Willie melds together into a single spiritual.)
Of the newer songs, the most enjoyable is actually one which seems to have been floating around for a few years without ever being recorded in a formal setting. Written during a time when Willie was recovering from carpal surgery, the opening lyrics are, “Too many pain pills / Too much pot / Tryin' to be something that I'm not / I ain't Superman,” resulting in a very rare sound from the audience: a roar of appreciation for new material. (Though not on any of Willie’s albums, the track was part of his iTunes Originals set and, thankfully, can be downloaded individually.)
Instead of wasting time on the time-honored schtick of pretending to leave the stage, only to return for an encore, Willie indicates the point when he normally would’ve done that, then explains that they’ve “eased that out of the program” and simply moves on with the show. From there, he throws out a transcendent version of “Always on My Mind,” then channels his inner Hank Williams by performing “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey Good Lookin’,” and “Move It On Over” before returning to his own material to close with “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” and the inevitable reprise of “Whiskey River.” There’s another brief pause for applause, then Nelson launches into what’s technically his second and final encore; for the boys in Iraq, he plays “A Peaceful Solution,” then closes with another Hank Williams song: “I Saw the Light.”
Ironically, however, the audience didn’t see the light for quite some time after Willie left the stage. For some reason, The NorVa opted to leave the house lights down, resulting in the crowd continuing to stomp, clap, and chant, “Willie! Willie! Willie!” The stage crew, however, went straight to their task of dismantling the sound equipment, though it would be several minutes more before the most diehard fans finally gave up on their hopes that Willie might return armed solely with an acoustic guitar. Though it was pretty uncool that the venue kept the audience in the dark (it was an early show, so one presumes it was a maneuver designed to get people to stick around and keep drinking), it’s probable that very few headed home disappointed with what they had received; if there’s one thing you get with a Willie Nelson show, it’s your money’s worth.
Main Set: Whiskey River, Still Is Still Moving To Me, Beer For My Horses, Funny How Time Slips Away, Crazy, Nightlife, Me and Paul, If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time), Good Hearted Woman, Help Me Make It Through the Night, Me and Bobby McGee, Over You Again, Moment of Forever, Will The Circle Be Unbroken / I’ll Fly Away, Superman, You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore, On The Road Again
Encore 1: Always on My Mind, On the Bayou, Hey Good Lookin’, Move It on Over, City of New Orleans, To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before, Whiskey River
Encore 2: Take Back America, I Saw the Light