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The last time I saw Willie Nelson I was really high.
It was at the Tehama County Fairgrounds in Northern California, and instead of buying a separate ticket, my girlfriend and I decided to just keep riding the nighttime Ferris wheel conveniently located near the stage. It was romantic, but the sound wasn't so good. And then some kid threw up.
But inside the recent sold-out Willie Nelson show at The National, the crystal-clear sound was just about perfect and not a dollop of puke rained from the sky. No offense honey, but I have to say this was a better show.
First thing's first, though: What is it about wizened ole Willie, now 74, that keeps him so popular? He hasn't had a major hit since the '80s as far as I know -- though "Cowboys are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other" should have been a runaway smash.
It could be that he's an honest songwriter who writes simple but meaningful country tunes that deal with life's more universal emotions -- no easy task. Or maybe it's the feel-good work he's done to help the small American farmer, harkening back to an age when this country actually produced its own goods. Maybe it's just that grandfatherly look he has going, assuming your grandfather had a braided ponytail.
Whatever the case, the Redheaded Stranger is an anomaly. How many other mainstream performers draw widely from opposite ends of the political spectrum? Surveying the crowd of 1,450 fans at the March 18 show, there seemed to be a variety of white folk of all ages. There were likely plenty of conservative, old school country diehards. Just like there were new-school liberals, frat boys, and even the occasional dreadlocked hippie -- the latter of whom might be more in line with Nelson's far left leanings, or his desire to legalize marijuana. Granted, I didn't conduct a formal poll.
One thing is certain: Tonight was first and foremost about the music -- and Nelson delivered the kind of veteran, masterful performance he is known for, earning the steadfast adulation of the crowd.
Nelson's live formula is simple. Alternate rollicking feel-good country tunes with slower ballads and a smattering of classic covers. Dressed completely in black and flanked by an unobtrusive, six-piece electric band and huge Texas flag, Nelson stayed in good spirits, focused and energetic. His jazz-inflected, nylon-stringed guitar playing danced lightly, looping around each song's melody. As a singer, he retains that gritty, often nasal whine from yesteryear -- but he shines more brightly on the slower numbers, which better fit his casual, almost spoken word delivery.
Standouts included the usual classics: from Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" to a warm cover of "Georgia on My Mind," a loose "Pancho and Lefty" (Van Zandt) and energetic crowd pleasers such as "On the Road Again," "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" and the gospel-slam dunk "I'll Fly Away." Nelson seemed to be tipping his hat to legendary songwriting friends throughout the evening, performing "Me and Bobby McGee" by Kris Kristofferson with particular relish for its classic outlaw refrain: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose/nothing ain't worth nothin', but it's free." Nelson is an old pro at delivering lyrics like he's lived them, teasing out each word and losing himself in the song. He later applauded the crowd's singing of "Amazing Grace."
Toward the end of the two-hour show, Nelson brought out a woman from Germany who is working on a film titled "Willie & Me." Lights came up on the stage, and the woman sang a duet with Willie, who had mentioned earlier there was filming going on (although I could barely hear his commentary in back thanks to the loud cheering). He may have dedicated "You Were Always on My Mind" to her.
If you want proof of Nelson's devotion to his fans, look no further than the extended, show-closing autograph session. As the band laid down a shuffling blues coda, Nelson walked along the front of the stage, signing t-shirts, shaking hands, even speaking into upraised cell phones. If I hadn't known better, I would've thought he was a politician. But Willie ain't likely to make it back to the White House anytime soon, considering he allegedly smoked weed on the roof the last time.
Props are also due The National. Although the historic venue holds 1,600 people, organizers wisely stopped ticket sales 150 people shy of capacity, so things didn't get too uncomfortable. If you haven't made it there yet, you're in for a pleasant surprise: great, balanced sound and a clear view of the stage from nearly every angle (thanks to the tilted main floor). The venue has also included a number of small bars in different locations so that lines don't become obstructive. Well done.