Last Night: Willie Nelson At Verizon Wireless Theater

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Willie Nelson & Family Verizon Wireless Theater April 28, 2011

See Willie Nelson's extended Houston family in our slideshow.

There are few times you don't want the Rolling Stones in your head. A very few. But on your way to a Willie Nelson show trying to fight off the insinuating strains of "The Last Time" is one of them.

Not to be morbid, but the Red Headed Stranger is getting up there. It could be the last time. He looked stiff and, well, aged walking onstage at Verizon at 9 p.m. sharp Thursday night. He ought to; he turns 78 on Saturday. "Little sister" Bobbie had to be escorted to her grand piano.

Then Willie starts to play, and a different realization sets in: The man is eternal. Ain't it funny how time slips away.

It really does, too. When Nelson and his band - besides Bobbie, just bassist Bee Spears, drummers Paul and Billy English and Mickey Raphael on harmonica Thursday - get locked in, most often on a ballad like "Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground" or "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain," the clock freezes and there's nothing except those notes ducking and diving around one another, searching for the meaning the singer is denied in the words. Beautiful.

On the faster songs, say "Good Hearted Woman" or "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," it becomes clear what a unique guitarist Nelson is. It's almost expressionist the way he scratches and stabs at his instrument - trusty acoustic Trigger until switching to a pearl Fender electric on Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" - as he plays above, below, ahead of and behind the beat laid down by the Swiss-timed Spears and English.

The carpal tunnel he mentioned before new single "Superman" (a duet with Snoop Dogg on record) must not have been bothering him too much. The way he negotiated the tricky thickets of "Bloody Mary Morning" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine," it couldn't have.

Aftermath's main (and admittedly minor) knocks on Nelson the past few times we've seen him have been that he plays the exact same set every time, and sometimes the songs come and go so fast it can be hard to soak them in. They don't call him Shotgun Willie for nothing.

Neither was really true Thursday. Gone were anything by his old pals Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard - maybe he's mad at them right now - and, equally surprisingly, Bob Wills. He might have shelved that after the whole Asleep at the WheelWillie and the Wheel cycle.

In their place were several country-blues numbers ("Rainy Day Blues," "Shoeshine Man") that sounded vintage but not fusty, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" - which drew a laugh when Nelson blew a lyric near the end - and one of those songs that comes along at exactly the right moment you need to hear it, this time Billy Joe Shaver's "You Asked Me To." The title track/theme to 1973's Phases and Stages was another deep cut that cut especially deep.

And all that time Nelson has spent making records with T-Bone Burnett and jazz musicians like Wynton Marsalis lately is paying some serious dividends live. He and the band really burrowed into several songs Thursday, especially the bluesier ones, overlapping and trading licks until Nelson called time with a nod of his head or one final stroke of his guitar. Any creakiness was a distant memory by the trifecta of "Night Life," "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Crazy."

The Englishes (see comments) must know about a million different ways to play a single snare drum with two brushes by now, and showed them all off Thursday. Same as her brother, Bobbie Nelson showed few signs of age on the lively churchhouse licks of "I'll Fly Away" and her solo showpiece "Down Yonder." Harmonica genius Raphael deserves a medal for what he did to the already-gorgeous "Georgia On My Mind."

One bit of song placement stood out more than the others Thursday. After Nelson and the band had about half the theater on their feet and vigorously clapping along with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away," they did a complete 180 into the forlorn, desolate, almost crawling blues "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Both songs are meditations on mortality and the afterlife, but it takes a brave man to put the sobering song that acknowledges maybe this really is all there is after the we'll-all-meet-in-heaven blessed assurance.

But Nelson had the crowd eating out of his hand all night, and by the time he and the Family finally closed out with a revival-style "I Saw the Light," he could have sold snow to an Eskimo.

Personal Bias: It's. Willie. Nelson.

The Crowd: A Willie crowd - people of all shapes, sizes and stations. A whiter shade of Texas.

Overheard In the Crowd: A lot of singing along. A lot of singing along. Also, "Happy birthday, Willie!"


Whiskey River Still Is Still Moving To Me Beer For My Horses Shoeshine Man Good Hearted Woman Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away Crazy Night Life Down Yonder (Bobbie Nelson solo) Me & Paul If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain Mamas 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 Superman Jazz Instrumental Jambalaya Hey Good Lookin' Move It On Over Rainy Day Blues Georgia On My Mind City Of New Orleans To All the Girls I've Loved Before Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I'll Fly Away Nobody's Fault But Mine Bloody Mary Morning I Gotta Get Drunk You Asked Me To Phases and Stages (Theme) I Saw the Light

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