Watching Willie Nelson roll through thirty songs in a mere ninety-minutes at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois was an otherworldly experience. I had parallel sensations watching Buddy Guy inside his blues club in Chicago a few years ago. Willie Nelson and his four backing musicians seamlessly segued from one song to the next with ease delivering sentimental performances without a blink or even a pause. There was a voice within that kept saying, "this is as good as it gets". Nelson is seventy-nine years old and still plays every show with absolute earnestness. The performance was so uncontaminated; you often wonder why one should bother with modern music. Nelson embodies the spirit of the songs every time he plucks his trusty Martin guitar, Trigger, and lets the lyrics take flight from his lips.
Opening the show with "Whiskey River" and "Still Is Still Moving to Me" the band dressed the songs up with brush-beat drums, Mickey Raphael's inconspicuous harmonica along with Willie's sister, Bobbie, providing musical beautification for the songs on piano. Besides Nelson, his stage is as simplistic as it can get several amplifiers, a single snare drum (whose duties are split by two drummers), new bassist Kevin Smith (who has taken over for Dan "Bee" Spears who passed late last year) and a baby grand piano performed by Bobbie. The four-piece band never overdresses the songs allowing them to lay in their most natural form, further exemplifying the beauty and greatness each composition bears from "Beer for My Horses" (a unexpected Toby Keith cover which the crowd sung along to) to "Funny How Time Slips Away" to "Crazy" and "Night Life"- each song was completely unfiltered. There is no theatricality and no posing. They simply let the show work on the strength of the performances and the songs. The biggest spark comes from Nelson's guitar, Trigger, as the tone of the guitar hovers above the band leading the way, but never taking a detrimental detour. Trigger looks as if it is old enough to have been at the Last Supper and yet, its tone is untouchable. Few guitars have ever been as integral to one's entire career as Trigger. Despite their bare bones approach, nothing was lost in the performance because they do not need distortion pedals and huge amplifiers to hide anything, the splendor of it all lies within the understated songs.
Willie Nelson is a profoundly gifted writer and yet he has never shied away from recording someone else's material. For a man who has written hundreds of songs, he performs others by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams with the jovial zest of someone who has just discovered music. This very enthusiasm keeps him active today. A pair of Kris Kristofferson songs "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and "Me & Bobby McGee" was underpinned by Mickey Raphael's harmonica accentuating the ache of the song. Some songs were serious ("Georgia on My Mind"), others solemn ("My Window Faces South"), others were delivered with a wry smile ("You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore ") and throughout all of them, he delivered each one with all of his heart. His sweet vocal inflictions transcend genres and boundaries and none of the covers feel forced. Mid-way through the show he tore through a trio of Hank Williams songs including "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)", "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Move It on Over". Nelson made the songs his own while at the same time, exhibiting a little bit of childish glee when performing the songs as he tipped his hat (or headband) towards a hero of his and one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth-century. On "Me and Paul" he relinquished his cowboy hat to reveal his legendary headband. Like an elder bluesman, these songs are an intricate part of his DNA. He does not over think them, he simply gets off the bus, hits the stage and does his job better than almost anyone else. He lets the songs take flight it's about the music, not him. He a master at minimalism and goes far and wide with very little behind him. In a day and age where music production is bloated hearing the crowd shuffle its feet, sing and keep the beat with their hands during "On the Road Again" was revelatory in its minimalism. Trigger took a backseat to the lovely lyrics and soft piano notes of "Always On My Mind" which is the definitive version of the song. "City of New Orleans" had the crowd singing and swaying and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die", a song from his latest record felt like a classic.
Heroes is his 66th studio record and like most of his records, it shows different shades of the legend with his takes on new songs and some modern classics he reshapes into his own. Heroes is the first release of his new record contract with Legacy Recordings, a catalog division of Sony Music whom Nelson recorded for between his peak commercial years of 1975-1993. I could tell you Heroes is Nelson's best record in decades but that would largely discredit his other wonderful records. The truth is he does not create mediocre records. I've never understand how certain artists can be so wildly inconsistent for decades and when they create one great album everyone huddles around them and praises it as a comeback, what about those artists, like Willie Nelson, who never seem to have a dip in quality. From Teatro to The Great Divide to Songbird to Moment of Forever, Nelson consistently delivers the goods year-after-year, record-after-record. Heroes has several guest appearances by Merle Haggard, Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson, Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson, the latter two his sons. Recorded in Nashville and Austin, the record is solid top-to-bottom with Nelson singing a selection of songs going as far back as the 1930's. One of the album's new compositions, "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" on record features vocals from Kristofferson, Johnson and Snoop Dogg. The high-energy pedal steel number has all of the elements of a great Nelson song and in concert, despite being new; the crowd welcomed it insatiably. His son Lukas performs and sings on the record, but more impressively, he wrote three songs for the record as well. "No Place To Fly" in particular stands out with Nelson complimenting his father's vintage warm voice on record. Hearing their voices together gives Heroes a unique imprint that is most welcomed. Nelson's son Lukas harmonizes with his father on a cover of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe". The gut wrenching vocals take on new meaning as you hear father and son trade off verses. Lukas has a voice similar to his father's but distinctive enough to be noticed. The song goes to another emotional plane as father and son sing to one another about a time in the not too distant future. There comes a time in our lives where mortality catches up with us and these two voices trigger our own awakening.
Willie Nelson is so consistent that the world over often takes his talent for granted. His shows are so full of life- you'd be hard pressed to walk away not moved by it. Further, the crowd welcomed Nelson warmly singing along to nearly every song. Despite the crowd being older and sitting for a decent portion of the performance, they rapturously roared when necessary and received a standing ovation after nearly every song. Their participation and attentive nature far exceeds many bands that are a half century younger than Nelson. This isn't a typical show one may expect as Nelson and his backing band performed wholly compelling songs with minimum instrumentation. It was not flashy, but it hit you like a fist to the gut. The magnificence and spare arrangements complimented one another as did Nelson's warm and reedy voice, which doesn't sound like time has hindered it one bit. He's still capable to spinning your memory bank with his subtle delivery of songs, both old and new.
The show closed with the Hank Williams hymn "I Saw the Light" which is about turning your back on the darkness and instead embracing a high power. The arrangement was revivalist taking the audience as close to the light as humanly possible. He unlatched Trigger from his guitar strap, and proceeded to sign autographs for everyone who wanted one. When one witnesses any kind of live performance, they should leave there a better person than when they walked in. They should take something away from the music and performance and channel it back into their life. Watching Nelson sing these songs about the highs and lows of life, we know we are witnessing a truly authentic voice who sings not to us, but for us. He has fought his own demons and been knocked down only to get back up again. He tears through the songs without ever stopping. He didn't waste a single second of the show. Some may throw the label of outlaw country to Nelson, but the truth is his performances, songs and above all else legacy transcends categorization.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Willie Nelson Live