Willie Nelson and Family
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
March 18, 2017
It says something important that Willie Nelson has a new song out called “Still Not Dead Again Today.” Whimsical and profound; that’s him. First, it says he’s not going to dance around the issue of mortality like almost everybody else does — hail, hail, and RIP Chuck Berry — but also that the man still has work to do. In front of an announced RodeoHouston crowd of 75,008, Saturday night was in some respects just another show for Nelson, but afterward it was awful hard to shake the feeling that something truly special had just happened in that building.
NRG Stadium was filled with all manner of ages, races, creeds, accents, economic stations, and ailments, one of those great cross-sections of humanity that often only seems possible in Houston, and at the rodeo. All of them witnessed pretty much the same set list Nelson has been doing for many years, except somewhat shorter. That’s the beauty of it. For those in the crowd under age 60, Saturday could well have been the first time they had ever heard that many Hank Williams Sr. songs in one sitting…unless they’d seen Willie in concert before.
At a certain level, true, all Nelson had to do to win Saturday was show up. He may be a Texas icon, American musical treasure, and saint in the eyes of many, but he is also a nearly 84-year-old man. Outside of Tony Bennett, it’s hard to imagine anyone of his age and reputation still out there doing what he does. In recent years especially, Nelson has not been shy about canceling a show if he wasn’t feeling up to it. But when he does show up, fans still expect him to be “Willie,” and here it gives me great pleasure to report that he’s still not dead again today.
Not that Saturday set was flawless, nor should it have been. Live, Nelson has long sailed through his repertoire in a meter of his own, lyrics most of all. And the way he attacked his guitar during opener “Whiskey River” and parts of “Still Is Still Moving to Me” resembled pulling the ignition cord of a lawn mower or chainsaw — it may take a few yanks to really catch, but once it does it can cover a lot of ground. It’s exactly these sort of imperfections, or idiosyncrasies perhaps, that continue garnishing Nelson’s legend. From about “On the Road Again” forward, though, his magic fingers were working just fine. It's a shame more people never seem to talk about what a great jazz musician he is.
Besides, his band (aka "and Family") is uniquely suited to pick Nelson up if he drops a line or flubs a lick, and Saturday's crowd was more than happy to take over the vocals any time he asked them to. “Little Sister” Bobbie added plenty of swinging honky-tonk piano, shining on “Down Yonder” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Harmonica maestro Mickey Raphael nailed down just the right tone no matter the tune, bluesy on “Beer For My Horses” and swooning on “Georgia On My Mind.” Bassist Kevin Smith and the drumming tandem of Paul and Billy English created an understated but watertight pocket, all the moreso in light of their leader’s expressionistic rhythmic ideas, and really locked in on “Georgia On a Fast Train” and “Move It On Over.”
All of this has happened at nearly every one of Nelson’s shows that I’ve witnessed, though. What made Saturday special was how his music created unique opportunities in a much larger venue. Take the firefly effect of thousands of smartphone lights — sure, that might happen at so many stadium/arena shows it’s become a cliche, but when it’s Willie singing “Georgia On My Mind” it’s hard not to choke up a little bit. Raphael's harmonica worked wonders with the stadium's acoustics.
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Personally, it hit me during “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”: flashing between Nelson on the overhead video screens and the tiny band members onstage revolving around the arena floor, I imagined him totally disappearing into the song during his guitar solos; the effect created a powerful moment of intimacy for such a huge space. Even the way those screens showed him tossing his bandanna offstage or pointing to the sky (which he did a lot), while nothing special in and of itself, was still pretty cool because it was Willie.
“Still Not Dead Again Today,” after Nelson introduced it Saturday, brought on a smile because it turned out to be another one of his patented frisky shuffles like another newer song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” (One line says, "Don't bury me, I got a show to play.") Another recent tune that made the rodeo set list, “It’s All Going to Pot” (his duet with the late Merle Haggard), might imply that Nelson has at last seen all of this world he cares to see, but these others — plus country-gospel standbys “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Saw the Light” — offer some pretty convincing evidence that Nelson has put in plenty of time pondering the afterlife too, and just might know a thing or two we don’t. So in the end, we might all be better off by taking a moment to reflect on exactly what, in “Roll Me Up,” he means by “I didn’t come here, and I ain’t leavin'.”