Willie Nelson at House of Blues, 11/18/2014

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Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver House of Blues November 18, 2014

See enough Willie Nelson concerts, say at least a half-dozen, and you'll really start focusing on the little things. Sure, the set list may not change much from show to show, if at all, but each one that comes around makes the subtle variations applied by Willie and family stand out that much more.

Plus, these are songs like "Whiskey River," "On the Road Again" and "Georgia On My Mind" we're talking about, so it's not wise to look a gift horse like that too closely in the mouth anyway.

Tuesday night at a sold-out House of Blues, the biggest question going in was whether the atmosphere would be as fragrant as the previous evening's Method Man/Redman/B-Real blunt brigade, and Willie's fans more than held their own. There was some pretty powerful herb being passed around for sure.

As opposed to Nelson's previous appearance in the area last November at Stafford Centre (this show had been postponed from February), Tuesday Nelson's band was at full strength. Missing last year, harmonica specialist Mickey Raphael was restored to a lineup that also included "Sister Bobbie" on the baby grand, English brothers Paul and Billy on drums and percussion and Kevin Smith, the youngest member by a good 20 years, on upright bass. And they came to play, too.

There is a real art to the way the 81-year-old Willie coaxes and claws notes out of his guitar, sparring with the steady beat provided by the Englishes; when people talk about musicians having a conversation with each other, this is what they mean. That's what made nearby jokes like "is he tuning his guitar up there or what?" extra annoying. Last time through he had been a little under the weather, but Tuesday Nelson was sounding strong by "Still Is Still Moving to Me" and seemed to relish his guitar playing all evening long.

On "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" and particularly in the later jazzy interludes and an almost classical-length introduction to happy surprise "I Never Cared For You," it came to mind how great it would be to see Nelson in a jazz club sometime, a real listening room where all the nuances of what he and the band are doing onstage can come across. House of Blues wasn't as unforgiving as it can be at other shows, but it was still pretty loud in there. (Wonder what the Longhorn Ballroom's acoustics were like when Nelson blew into Houston in 1959.)

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It doesn't take long into any Willie show to appreciate not only how long these musicians have been playing together but how seamlessly their individual parts blend into the band's collective sound. Bobbie especially sounded bright and strong from the beginning, on her traditional featured song "Down Yonder" and when she took the lead on "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," "Good Hearted Woman" and Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," among others.

Raphael would usually be right there to take over when her solo was done, and was responsible for perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening by putting a wistful Tejano spin on "Always On My Mind." Kevin Smith supplied maybe the night's most buoyant point, a bounce at the heart of Hank Williams' "Move It On Over" that had lots of heads bobbing along in the crowd.

As for Willie, the moment I'll most take away from this show was the grin that stole over his face when he hit the line "she had a lot of hoochie coochie ways" during Tom T. Hall's "Shoeshine Man." That it came directly after some guy headed to the men's room threatened to pee on me if I didn't let him past made it that much sweeter. That's good stuff.

So, How Was the Opener? Nelson's fellow Central Texan Billy Joe Shaver was his usual avuncular, salty self, joined by Mickey Raphael on an abbreviated set that hit most of his biggest tunes: "Georgia On a Fast Train," "Live Forever," "That's What She Said Last Night," etc. Half an hour really isn't enough time to truly appreciate Shaver's talents -- there was only room for one song from his fantastic new album, Long In the Tooth -- but it did prevent him from making another off-color joke like at Discovery Green last year. Good to see my old neighbor Nick Gaitan back on upright bass with the old man, too.

Personal Bias: Still is still moving to me.

The Crowd: Typical Willie crowd, bundled up. All ages and degrees of personal grooming.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Is this the senior-citizen line?"

Random Notebook Dump: How is it only 9:35?

Three Biggest Crowd-Recognition Cheers: 3. "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" 2. "Crazy" 1. "Georgia On My Mind"


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