Willie Nelson and Family | The Pernikoff Brothers April 17, 2012 The Pageant
Halfway through last night's Willie Nelson show at the Pageant (6161 Delmar Boulevard, 314-726-6161), with the obligatory Texas flag backdrop flying on stage and Willie about to launch into "Good Hearted Woman," a man asks me, "Have you seen Willie before?" I tell him it's been a few years; the last time I saw Willie Nelson was July 8, 2005 at a baseball field (GMC Stadium, apparently) in Sauget, Illinois on a split bill with Bob Dylan.
He asks me, already aware of the answer, if the setlist feels familiar. In the past 30 years it's fair to say most Willie Nelson shows follow a similar format: open with "Whiskey River" and close with "I Saw The Light" always, sprinkle in "You Were Always On My Mind," "Momma Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," and the bizarre, patriotism incarnate "Beer For My Horses," plus a few fan-favorite covers for good measure. And then there's Trigger, Willie's dearly loved, war-battered Martin M-20 classical guitar circa 1969, with the gaping-hole just above the bridge, as weathered and worn as ever, but also as pitch-perfect and strong. True to form, last night's setlist didn't deviate much from that structure. It's not a complaint or comment on his star that he tours the same songs -- they are the ones his fans want to hear and he plays them with such lonesome yearning and furious zeal that they're as affecting as they ever were.
When Willie took the stage at 9 p.m., clad in a black graphic T-shirt, black pants and cowboy hat, a thunder of applause erupted from the all-ages audience. Truly, a Willie Nelson concert spans the gamut, proving the outlaw country cowboy is as popular at 78-years-young (make that 79-years-young on April 30), as he was in his hardscrabble 1975 heyday. After opening the show with "Whiskey River" and "Still Is Still Moving For Me," he starts strumming "Beer For My Horses" and a sea of fans singing (ahem, shouting?) engulfs the room. Surely a man of conviction but also complexity, I'll never totally understand how Willie, who covered Coldplay's "The Scientist" for an anti-factory farming commercial for Chipotle, champions for the legalization of marijuana nationwide and backs the politics of Dennis Kucinich can sing the lyrics "We've got too much corruption, too much crime in the streets/It's time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground/Send 'em all to their maker and he'll settle 'em down" earnestly. But he does. And when you're seeing him, you do too. You just do.
Smooth "Shoeshine Man" comes next, and during the break Willie trades his cowboy hat for a red bandana, one of many sitting on his amp. As the song draws to a close Willie says hello to the crowd, warming everyone up with some banter set to guitar strumming, appropriate for the king of conversational singing. Bluesy, gypsy jazzy "Funny How Time Slips Away" evolves into a wistful guitar solo, which evolves into "Crazy," a song we all know but not necessarily as a Willie Nelson song: A woman near me exclaims, "I love Patsy Cline;" a reminder of Willie's early struggles in the music business as more than a songwriter, which for me at least, ups the sentiment of the experience.
A flurry of hits follow in rapid succession: Bluesy, free-flowing "Night Life," during which he introduces sister Bobbi on keys, harmonica virtuoso Mickey Raphael, longtime drummer and partner in crime Paul English and new bassist Kevin Smith (R.I.P. Dan "Bee" Spears); "Me and Paul" a playful heartstring tugger about his adventures with English and "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Then Willie launches into "Me and Bobby McGee," singing, playing, jamming with Bobbi as if the song were written for her, about her. Then it's back to Willie standards "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain" and "Good Hearted Woman," when he takes off his bandana and breaks to let the audience help with the chorus to the song that was he and Waylon Jennings first duet chart-topper. The audience seems surprised as the band begins "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," with organic, tender guitar from Willie leading into knee-slapping nomad anthem "On the Road Again," where Mickey's spirited, precision harmonica playing pours out pure hellraising, honky tonk noise.
Then it's "You Were Always On My Mind," that old love song anthology favorite you know he'll play and a song I feel some ambivalence toward, until of course, he played it. Full of more winsome nostalgia and raw, dressed-down longing than the heartbreak and schmaltz I unfairly associate it with; Willie had me as transfixed and enamored as the rest of the audience. Then the lights come down a bit more and a spotlight follows Willie as he riffs a bluesy, folksy instrumental, intimate and rambling, not bothered by the crowds "ohhs," "ahhs," applauses and iPhone videography. The twangy acoustic performance gives way to twangier "Momma Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" and again the crowd assists with chorus (and yee-haws).
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