Willie Nelson & Family, Irving Plaza, NYC 1/22/02
Referring to Willie Nelson as a “legend” almost demeans his stature as a poet and musician. It belittles what he really means to American music. For decades, Uncle Willie has done his own thing with the utmost integrity, never compromised his music, and at no time did he ever offer an apology for doing so.
Whether it’s country, blues, roots, children’s, or straight-up rock, Willie has forged an icon status across many genres and generations. “American” is the only worthy adjective for Nelson’s musical focus. Tales of good guys and bad, drunks and out-laws, pretty damsels and bandits, desperados and gamblers, and the ever-popular theme of loss (of love, life, and estate), the man has lived through it all and like the phoenix, he is the very portrait of tenacity under adversity. With his guitar as a chisel and vocals a hammer, Nelson continues to chip away a monument to his own eminence in the side of an American mountain.
Who else can write Patsy Cline’s biggest hit (and possibly country music’s biggest hit of all-time), “Crazy,” as a teenagerthen twenty-odd years later make Julio Iglesias sound cool? It’s hard to imagine one feat being bigger than the other.
In short, Willie Nelson represents all that is right with the good old US of A.
At a time when the music-listening public needs a distinct American figure to step it up and show what “true blue” really means, this ole feller from Luckenbach (Luck), Texas keeps on keepin’ on with absolute intrepidity. It was only fitting then that Willie Nelson and Family turned Manhattan Island into an aw-shucks tempest of happiness. A few giddy attendees even saluted his presence.
Looking more like your hippie uncle than a rock star, Nelson emerged on stage last with the Texas State flag as a big, bad backdrop. Sporting a close-cropped, scruffy beard, black cowboy hat to cover those extra-long braids, and his trusty guitar, the urban crowd didn’t quite know what to make of this black-clothed renegade bathed in a strangely iridescent pink light; it made for a baffling yin-yang. No sooner was his signature red-white-and-blue guitar strap around his neck than the twang-y “Whiskey River” had the crowd’s feet in a collective stomp. An obvious nod to his Kentucky Bourbon tour supporter, its reception was so successful he reprised it two hours later. (Note: The distillery is not only named after the song, but its mere existence is homage to the man himself.)
Rousing the crowd with the seamless “Good-Hearted Woman”-> “Crazy” twosome offered a chance to see just how nasty a guitar player Nelson really is. Mean licks and quick changes were the norm as the Family kept perfect time behind him. Peppering the set with welcome covers such as “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Georgia on My Mind” were perfect compliments to newer originals like “Milk Cow Blues.”
Nelson let Family members take the spotlight, too. “Little sister Bobbie” set down a fantastic Wild-West saloon piano lick for a short, but raucous instrumental. Her extended solo also got one of the loudest receptions of the evening. Guitarist Jody Payne offered a wonderfully Dylan-esque voice to the twelve-bar bounce of “Working Man Blues.”
As with most old-timers, though, the crowd went wild for the more familiar songs. After all, they are the signature tunes we all grew up with and afforded Nelson radio play almost 40 years ago when country music was a cutthroat business. These same compositions landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973 and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame twenty years later. Running almost a decade after those accolades, “All of Me” sounded more beautiful than ever with his unwavering voice.
The warning of “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” is still a hoot with its lyrical juxtaposition of “Mamas don’t let your cowboys grow up to be babies.” “On the Road Again,” his eternal anthem, was given a fresh face with its Mexi-Cali flavor and southwest tonal arrangement. Followed by the “Always On My Mind,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” triplet, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. Somehow, this sextet managed to avoid the “oldies show syndrome.” It never neared the best-of showcase that some old-timers fall back on. It felt right that he should play them. The rapid-fire reel also let on that he might just be trying to get them out of the way.
Rounding out the late night without ever taking a break, the show was a mix of old and new originals. All told, Willie Nelson and Family played for nearly four hours. Showing great energy and stamina, Nelson never took a break and even strapped on an electric guitar near the end.
Willie Nelson’s never-ending tour has more of a purpose now with the recent release of The Great Divide, featuring a second set of Willie Nelson supporters and friends. Running non-stop until mid-April, fans have ample opportunities to catch a show as the tour wends its way out West and bounces around the South before heading out to Europe this summer. Check out www.willienelson.com for all things Willie.