Willie Nelson live in Denver 2016
I have never seen Willie before. I was very excited. Not just because he has made some great music. Not just because he was carrying what I regard as the last great free holy relic of guitars, Trigger. Not just because he is an icon, and a great man. But… because… let’s be honest… I was pretty sure he will die any second now. He is 83, and he looks like a man who has lived every second of it. I didn’t want to know the setlist, but I was looking for a gist of how the show might go. The day of, I snuck a peak at a review from the night before, in Utah.
First thing that came up was this piece.
It said right up front –
So it may be musical blasphemy to complain that the show only lasted 70 minutes, and Nelson talk-singed several of his well-known songs.
I stopped reading. I was a little worried, but still knew it was worth it. Plus, an evening with Regan and Trav is ALWAYS terrific. I figured an early evening home is always nice, and it will still be exciting to see Willie. Stay with me to the end, though, that quote above figures heavily here. I stopped reading because I didn’t want any more spoilers. When Willie stepped out that night in Denver, it was still very hot. It was probably 85 degrees. It wasn’t good. He looked horrible, he sounded horrible. He was barely even trying. It was sad, really.
Even his guitar playing was off (and he is a good guitar player. He has a melodic ear & execution I can only compare to Jerry Garcia). The tone on Trigger, for some reason, was distorted, and his playing was all over the road. Basically, as described above, the first 70 minutes were a shit show. That was all Utah got. We got so much more. As it got darker, and cooler, Willie began to become human. He started smiling, and really singing well… with heart. As the evening cooled, his guitar playing also got much better.
I didn’t expect to know more than about 10% of the setlist. I don’t own a single Willie Nelson album. Wait… I have his AMAZING performance with Johnny Cash on VH1’s Storytellers. Stop reading now and go buy that if it is available. I turned out I knew about 75% of the setlist. It was too bad some of his biggest hits were jammed early into the set… where they were just left to kind of die on the vine. For example, I am looking at the setlist. I see my absolute favorite song of his, Me and Paul. I was there, and I swear I did not hear that song at all.
Willie’s first hour reminded me of seeing Bob Dylan back around 1990. I was absolutely horrible. I am a BIG Dylan fan, and I didn’t recognize a damn thing he played. The only thing I recognized was his lead guitar player, G.E. Smith… because I knew him from Saturday Night Live.
Basically, this is the Willie that showed up.
but as the evening went on, this was the Willie he became… warm and lovely and fun and happy and heartfelt and sometimes even silly.
his band was good. He had two drummers who weren’t really needed. However, his piano player (whom is also his sister) just fucking killed it all night long. She was a beast of awesomeness in jazz and country… and a light and fun ragtime feel. She is even older than Willie! Wiki tells me she is 85, but you would NEVER know it from her playing.
He also had a terrific young harmonica player who looks alarmingly like Pat Mongahan from Train. Just look at those pics and tell me I am wrong. Overall the show was terrific, and I am SO glad I powered through the first half to stay with Willie. I also feel SO bad for the folks in Utah who didn’t get to see Willie become his old self. I don’t know why it was such a slow and painful start. Sure, it was really hot… but Willie is the Texas state flag. Heat should be nothing to him. Also, one might think being on stage for 2 hours would lead him to falter towards the end. Nope, he came more and more alive with each song (and each dropping degree). Colorado is cruel with weather, and it changes FAST. It was probably 30 degrees cooler by the end of the evening with the breeze factored in.