One only had to look at the crowd that packed the Pageant last night (tax day, ironically) to hear him and his Family play to know the truth of this statement. From bankers to bikers, transexuals to tweens, Nelson's appeal crosses, and erases, all lines of social demarcation, and his followers were out in force last night to see and hear him do his thing.
Anyone who might still have doubted Nelson's transcendence of the "country" label after surveying the audience last night was undoubtedly convinced after he picked up his trusty guitar, Trigger, and played the first notes of the obligatory opening song "Whiskey River," strumming with an off-kilter sense of time that took the straight-ahead rollicking tune into territory that was more be-bop than honky tonk.
Backed by a bare-bones band that included just a bassist, harmonica player, drummer and his sister Bobbie on piano, Nelson made the rounds of his huge catalog, from the outlaw country odes "Me and Paul" and "Mommas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," to sparkling gems of pop song-craft like "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" and "Crazy." Nelson also took several songs from other artists, like Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams and made them his own. His delicate version of Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind" was a particular highlight.
Willie Nelson is one of those artists who never plays a song the same way twice, and he took obvious pleasure in mixing up time signatures and phrasing, improvising his way though his songs while keeping just enough of the melody intact to remind the audience where he was coming from. Being the guy keeping time for Nelson has to be one of the toughest jobs in music, and the fact that Paul English only used a snare drum to take care of business was mind-boggling. Equally amazing was the sound that Nelson got out of Trigger, a beat-to-hell Martin N-20 classical guitar that by rights should have no business making those dulcet tones.
With his huge recorded output and proclivity for experimenting in musical genres from jazz to hip hop to reggae, though, it was a bit disappointing that the set list didn't include some of Willie's more esoteric offerings. The only time he really strayed from the hits was for a spare rendition of "I Never Cared For You," from his vastly underrated late '90s record "Teatro."
At 78 years old (he turns 79 on April 30) with 50-plus years in the business and umpteen records under his belt, I doubt anyone would fault Willie for sticking close to the recorded versions of his songs, throwing some souvenir bandanas to the crowd and calling it a day. The fact that he continues to perform with such creativity and abandon elevates him above most of his peers, and definitely the majority of musicians out there. Just call him "artist."
Opening act the Pernikoff Brothers played a short but tight set that featured a mighty drum sound and soaring vocal harmonies that made them sound much bigger than a trio. It can't be easy to open for someone who's achieved "living legend" status, but they handled the job with major aplomb.