When Willie Nelson ambled onto the stage of the Muriel Kauffman Theatre Thursday night, the sold-out crowd gave him a standing ovation before he even picked up Trigger, his trusty guitar.
The first strains of his traditional opener, “Whiskey River,” were accompanied by the unfurling of the Texas flag as the audience whooped and hollered, more decorous than what’s typical of a Nelson concert, yet more rambunctious than the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is used to.
This legend of American music displayed both his energy and pertinence, the staying power of a man 78 years young who insatiably records, tours and delights in the music that he and his band, the Family, perform.
The 90-minute show was set at a clipping pace and included 30 tunes, though some were truncated. But there were plenty of opportunities for the audience to belt out the choruses to favorites such as “Beer for My Horse,” “On the Road Again” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” amplifying Nelson’s outlaw cowboy spirit within the highbrow venue.
It wasn’t a perfectly pitched show, but it was a lesson in concision, with each tune dovetailing into the next and nary a stray moment wasted with chatter or dead time, the mark of a seasoned act.
Nelson’s band members, some of whom have been with him for decades, needed only a word or a chord to jump right in.
Drummer Paul English traded places with brother Billy between tunes — they offered some well-placed percussive effects on crotales and vibraslap with the ubiquitous brushes and snare. Nelson’s baby sister Bobbie was on piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Kevin Smith played bass.
After his good-humored rendition of “Me and Paul,” Nelson turned to shake the hand of his long-time drummer.
Nelson showed his gruff humor with “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” and touched on the lonesome with “Funny How Time Slips Away” and others. Balladeers should take note of “You Were Always on My Mind” — that is how you sing a love song.
The show ended with a medley of gospel tunes (including the rabble-rousing “Roll Me Up”), with daughter Amy on backing vocals.