Wille Nelson & Family at Stafford Centre, 11/19/2013

Willie Nelson & Family, Paula Nelson Band Stafford Centre November 19, 2013

The thought that Tuesday night might be the last time I see Willie Nelson never even popped into my head until after the show was over. I just assumed he'll be back about eight months from now, like he was eight months ago at the Arena Theatre. Willie is eternal.

He sure looks the part, stylishly dressed Tuesday in all black and those familiar braids and running shoes. You can see every bit of his 80 years on his face, which gives him the countenance of an esteemed tribal elder -- the Sitting Bull of country music.

But whenever the lights dim and those first chords of "Whiskey River" wash over you, it's still a good idea to keep the hero-worship in check (as much as possible, anyway) and appreciate the show on its musical merits. And as much as time has exacted its toll on his body, those are still in abundance.

The surprises and delights of Willie's sets these days come later on, after he's had plenty of time to warm up. And, let's face it, he needs it. Luckily Houston's Johnny Bush must have written "Whiskey River" expressly for Nelson to paw at his aged guitar Trigger for several minutes; that lets him get a comfortable feel for the room and the audience before he tosses them one crumb after another, until they've had a 30-course meal in about 80 minutes.

So yeah, you still have to sit through "Beer For My Horses" (sigh) for all of about a minute and a half, but he's kept "Still Is Still Moving" and moved the Hank Williams Sr. section toward the middle. Though he may have been nursing a cold, Willie's voice still resonates, ceding nothing in strength or tone what it may have in range. He paused to take a drink of water exactly once.

Impish as ever, he played "Me & Paul" like a late-night talk-show comedian, milking each lyric like a punchline to great effect. (The best was "I thought Branson was the roughest, but I know I've said the same about them all.") But to me, the magic didn't start to happen until "Help Me Make It Through the Night," when we could hear his guitar playing loosen up and get more fluid, and even see Nelson straining to reach each note of Kris Kristofferson's tender supplication.

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When he could easily phone it in, to see a legend like Nelson take so much care with his music is beyond endearing.

Review continues on the next page.

The show roughly followed a pattern of one song for the crowd, one for Willie and the Family, as on "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground." But there were plenty of other little delights along the way -- raffish tunes like Tom T. Hall's "Shoeshine Man," an "Always On My Mind" with the house lights almost off, a version of Gene Autry's "South of the Border" that let Willie show off how much he loves playing Spanish-style guitar, and a "new gospel song" "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" (a duet from 2012's Heroes) to go with an older one, "I Saw the Light."

As for the Family, it was a little tough to hear "little sister" Bobbie if she wasn't taking a solo, but when she was, her old-timey ivorywork was the highlight of "Good Hearted Woman," "Jambalaya" and "Georgia On a Fast Train." She had some nice interplay with upright bassist Kevin Smith, who took over when the late Bee Spears passed on last year two years ago, on "Move It On Over" and "Matchbox." Smith, best-known for his Austin rockabilly stalwarts High Noon, gave a bouyant anchor to English brothers Paul and Billy on drums and percussion.

It sure is nice to know the Family always has room for new members, but boy, did we miss Willie's trusted harmonica foil Mickey Raphael. Willie did too, saying "he'll be back soon."

We can only hope for the same for the Family's fearless, unflappable leader. But knowing Willie, he's already on a golf course somewhere, and he'll be gone 500 more miles before the day is done.

Personal Bias. Um...

So, How Was the Opener? Nelson's daughter Paula, the fourth of his six living offspring, favors her dad in both looks and voice, which is sultry and smoky enough to compare favorably with Shelby Lynne. Her set of sleepy, southwestern-tinged narco-country was studded with choice cuts like Waylon's "Just to Satisfy You" and Mickey Newbury's "Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In," and would have made an excellent double bill with Cowboy Junkies. Well played.

The Crowd: Mostly well-dressed middle-class folks who could afford the pricey tickets. Several were wearing red Willie Nelson bandannas, which at $15 were easily the least expensive item on the merch-table menu.

Overheard In the Crowd: "They're getting divorced... really?"

Random Notebook Dump: I bet Stafford has a sweet golf course or two.

SET LIST (take a deep breath)

Whiskey River Still Is Still Moving Beer For My Horses Good Hearted Woman Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away Crazy Night Life Down Yonder (Bobbie solo) Me & Paul Help Me Make It Through the Night 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 instrumental (maybe "Summertime") Jambalaya (Hank Williams cover) Hey Good Lookin' (Hank Williams cover) Move It On Over (Hank Williams cover) Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain Matchbox (Carl Perkins cover) City of New Orleans To All the Girls I've Loved Before Shoeshine Man (Tom T. Hall cover) Georgia On a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver cover) South of the Border (Gene Autry cover) Will the Circle Be Unbroken (w/Paula Nelson Band) I'll Fly Away (w/Paula Nelson Band) Have You Ever Seen the Rain (CCR cover w/Paula Nelson Band) Roll Me Up & Smoke Me When I Die (w/Paula Nelson Band) I Saw the Light (w/Paula Nelson Band)


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