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.
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.
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.
“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'.”