By Mike Finkelstein
Last Friday night, Willie Nelson and Family delivered a quickly paced and very satisfying 90-minute set to a Greek Theatre nearly full of his devoted fans. Performing below an appropriately huge Texas state flag, Nelson and his band held court to present the songs in his inimitably sparse style. Perhaps it was the balmy weather or just the nature of his appeal, but the ladies in the audience seemed to also be sparsely dressed to impress on a breezy summer evening. And the smell of burning medicinal herbs intermittently wafted through the air all evening long.
Each song was a carefully timed jaunt through the changes of the tune, allowing just enough time for the flavor of the piece to sink in — and for a bit of improvisation, too. Nobody played through an amplifier much bigger than a microwave oven and Willie’s amp had a grill in the shape of Texas (of course).
Backing him were his sister Bobbie Lee on piano, long-time cohort Bee Spears on bass, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, his son Lukas on guitar, his son Micah on percussion, and brothers Paul and Billy English on drum (singular!) and percussion. The band’s sound was subtle and distinctive, in large part because Paul English — mostly playing with brushes and a single snare drum — tickled and coaxed the music along for the whole evening. There was no full drum kit, and it was the lack of bottom heavy percussion that gave the sound so much room to breathe, with Micah playing an assortment of percussive accessories to add some flourishes to the mix.
For those of us who had never seen a Willie Nelson show before, it was gratifying to realize just how involved Willie’s guitar playing actually is and just how beautifully he weaves it together with his voice. He would typically sing a line in his trademark style of doing the first part of the stanza melodically, but trailing off into a speaking voice at the end of the phrase. Then, he would quickly counter the vocal line with a lyrical run on his guitar. These sophisticated runs, short and sweet as they were, lent a remarkable sense of intimacy to the moment, as there was clearly a running dialogue between the two voices.
Nelson’s iconic instrument, Trigger (named after the famous horse), is a one-of-a-kind, weathered old Martin nylon string guitar, so permeated with sweat, smoke, autographs and good music that there is an always widening crevasse between the bridge and the sound hole. He played Trigger with a pick and let his remaining three fingers sometimes tickle the chords’ upper registers. This guitar sounds nothing short of magical in his hands and it should eventually wind up in a place like the Smithsonian.
The program Friday night covered a tremendous amount of musical ground and the quick pace of the show seemed born out of necessity. From standards and chestnuts such as “Move It on Over” to “Shoeshine Man” to “City of New Orleans” to “Georgia on My Mind” and with many of his own hits in between, he offered something for just about every taste. He had the crowd dancing and singing along with songs like “Crazy,” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” He took the mood into contemplative spaces with songs like “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” and boozier ones with “Whiskey River,” and “Bloody Mary Morning.” A song like “On the Road Again,” about being anxious to get back out on the road and make music with his friends, really does seem to paint a true image of himself.
At the age of 77 Nelson is both a national treasure and a veteran of the road and many of its excesses. But it was inspiring to see that he was so at ease with the pace of it all onstage. Absolutely adored by his audience, he spent several minutes shaking hands and signing autographs as the show ended.
The evening was opened by Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses. Bingham, a gritty rising star in the country field who co-wrote “The Weary Kind” for the Academy Award winning movie Crazy Heart , delivered a fine set and had the crowd with him and building steam towards the end. Bingham sang songs from his new release, Junky Star, about maintaining his roots and staying true to his values in these difficult times with a rich yet dusty voice that you couldn’t help but be drawn to. Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, sat in for most of the Dead Horses set and, on ballads, played the chromatic harmonica beautifully without the typical blues nuances.
There were times when the Dead Horses had two cranked slide guitars playing in unison and even two harmonicas at one point. It all worked like a charm. In marked contrast to many opening acts, the Dead Horses were notable for the ease with which they commanded the stage and for the huge, but not too loud, sound they got out of small amplifiers. Bingham thanked the crowd for “putting up with (them),” but that was far from the case, as the band’s set was hugely successful.
All in all, a show like this one would stimulate somebody new to country music, or just unconvinced by it, to take an interest in both of these fine artists.
To read more of Mike Finkelstein’s reviews click HERE.