Last Night: Willie Nelson at Arena Theatre

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Willie Nelson Arena Theatre March 10, 2013

For some artists, even superlatives aren't enough. Willie Nelson turns 80 next month. He's been making music — and making a living off it — longer than my parents have been alive. And while there are other country artists of similar vintage and pedigree still kicking around (George Jones, Merle Haggard, Jerry Jeff Walker), no one else is as embraced and respected across the generations as the Red-Headed Stranger.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying we can cut the guy some slack.

Willie didn't put on a bad show last night at the Arena Theater, because even on autopilot the guy has a repertoire that puts just about everyone else to shame. He offered a dutiful performance, and if the hiccups were more apparent than usual, nobody really seemed to care.

Is anyone in music as beloved as Willie Nelson? From the reception he got walking into the theater last night, you'd think the dude had killed Hitler with his bare hands. The Arena's setup works well in many regards, but one of the advantages came in allowing Willie to high-five his fans before he took the stage.

And from there we were off. Playing his trusty Martin N-20 "Trigger," as he has since 1969, he opened with "Whiskey River" from 1973's Shotgun Willie, as he has since 1979 or so. The set list could certainly be viewed as a career retrospective, reaching back to 1961 ("Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away") and stretching through the Outlaw years ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain") on up to the new millennium, when collaborating with Nelson has perhaps become the litmus test for artists seeking legitimacy ("Beer for My Horses," with Toby Keith) or just a chance to hang out and smoke a bowl or six ("Superman," with Snoop Dogg).

The hair isn't so red anymore, and the cowboy hat (replaced with the signature red bandanna about halfway through) can't disguise how small the man actually is. But when you hear that voice, only more distinctive after more than four decades of failed marriages, IRS troubles and personal tragedy, the years really do fall away, and you're taken back to the first time you heard Willie sing "Georgia on My Mind."

Even with a catalog of 50 albums and close to 150 singles, Willie doesn't mix it up much. Though there are some songs he's said he won't play anymore because of painful memories, his arsenal is still a formidable one. Rocks Off has had the privilege of seeing Nelson perform three times, and we don't think we'll ever get tired of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" or "Always on My Mind."

Musically, the show was a bit of a different story. The Family, his backing band of 40 years, ebbed and flowed as best they could considering Willie's frequent...flubs? Lapses?

Rhythmically he was all over the place, usually pulling it back together for the end of the song, and doing better during sister Bobbie's piano parts. There were several times, however, when harmonica player Mickey Raphael looked as if he was about to jump in but had second thoughts. It occurred to us that the show might have come across more effectively as a solo effort, considering how often the band and Willie seemed out of sync.

And while we understand the necessity of getting through a 30-plus-song set in a timely manner, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the show was the lack of banter. Willie has had a musical career the likes of which we'll probably never see again, and has rubbed elbows and shared stages with some of the greatest artists of all time (Santana! Bennett! Dogg!); are a few anecdotes too much to ask? Beyond offering, "This is a Billy Joe Shaver tune" (before "Georgia on a Fast Train"), we mean? We're not asking for a Henry Rollins-style speaking tour, but certainly audiences would love to hear some stories about Waylon or Chet Atkins or even the virtues of biodiesel.

Okay, maybe not that last one. Still, he didn't even ad-lib when a girl flashed her breasts at him during "Georgia on My Mind." We haven't seen bare boobs at a concert since that last Crüe tour, which briefly led us to wonder if it was a form of assault. Seriously, is flashing a guy Willie's age a good idea?

In the end, it's hard to find fault with a show in which just about every song is a legitimate classic, and everyone in the audience sang along to almost all of them. It was a workmanlike gig, which befits a man who still makes albums and tours at an age when most of us would only pry ourselves away from Wheel of Fortune long enough to take our Rascal out to the mailbox. Mistakes or not, we'll cherish every remaining chance we have to see him play.

Personal Bias: While I was growing up, Willie was second only to the Beatles (and maybe Dolly Parton) in album representation in our house.

The Crowd: This wasn't their first rodeo.

Overheard in the Crowd: "He's so tiny!"

Random Notebook Dump: "'Beer for My Horses' and not 'My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys?' Toby Keith will pay for this."


Whiskey River
Still is Still Moving to Me
Beer For My Horses
Good Hearted Woman
Funny How Time Slips Away
Night Life
Me and Paul
Help Me Make it Through the Night
Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always On My Mind
Jambalaya (On The Bayou)
Hey Good Lookin'
Move it On Over
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore
I Gotta Get Drunk
Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver cover)
Let's Face the Music and Dance (Irving Berlin cover)
South of the Border
I Never Cared For You
Shoeshine Man (Tom T. Hall cover)
Georgia On My Mind
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
I'll Fly Away
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
I Saw the Light

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