Willie Nelson’s show at Starlight Theater on Wednesday night was his first since Sept. 22 — a span of nearly two weeks. And it showed.
Spry and spirited, Nelson and his band took the stage close to sundown amid a steady rain shower and for slightly more than 75 minutes delivered two dozen of his best-known and favorite songs. He delivered each with plenty of zeal, a sign that the rest had reinvigorated him.
The show was originally scheduled for mid-June, part of a bill that also included Dwight Yoakam and Robert Earl Keene, both of whom performed that night. But a hellacious rainstorm rolled in after Yoakam’s set, so Willie agreed to reschedule. Nearly four months later, he fulfilled the obligation, and nearly 7,000 fans showed up again to see the country legend.
He started with his standard opener, “Whiskey River,” performing it with his Family band before an enormous state of Texas flag. It was apparent off the bat that Nelson was deep in the mood.
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His voice was strong and clear, he sang more than he song-spoke and he was present and playful, coaxing the crowd on several occasions into sing-alongs.
Most impressive was his guitar playing, which was stellar and invigorated all night, a series of improvised, inspired and spot-on forays into jazz, rock and blues, whether strumming percussive chords or plucking sublime leads.
The set list didn’t stray far from the usual menu. He sang most of the standards, like “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
And he sang a few novelty songs, like “Beer for My Horses” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” During “Me and Paul,” he substituted “Branson” for “Nashville,” which aroused a big cheer. After “Night Life,” on his guitar he added a dash of “Jingle Bells.”
He was accompanied by a band that included his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, who, Nelson informed the crowd, was recently inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame; and Mickey Raphael, who embroidered many songs with riffs and fills on the blues harp.
Bobbie Nelson took the spotlight a few times, most notably during the instrumentals, like the roadhouse/gospel romp “Down Yonder.”
But the night belonged to Willie, who turned 84 in April but who, on this evening, performed like a much younger man. His shows can be a bit of a crapshoot, depending on how his rigorous touring schedule affects his energy levels. This evening, his tank was full.
His performance on the instrumental “Nuages” was stellar. Most of his vocal performances were sturdy and nuanced. He squeezed all the comic value out of “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Still Not Dead” and all the heart and soul out of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” His cover of Waylon Jenning’s “Good Hearted Woman” was nearly exuberant.
And he orchestrated the night’s loudest sing-along during “Hey Good Lookin’,” part of his Hank Williams tribute.
He closed with his usual valediction: the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away.” It, too, prompted a hearty response from a crowd that had been slowly soaked by a steady mist but whose spirits had been lifted by a music hero who showed up fully in the mood to redeem a belated promise.
Whiskey River; Still Is Still Moving to Me; Beer for My Horses; Good Hearted Woman; 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; Down Yonder; Me and Paul; If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time; Georgia on My Mind; I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train; Funny How Time Slips Away; Crazy; Night Life; It’s All Going to Pot; Nuages; Shoeshine Man; Move It on Over; Hey, Good Lookin’; Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die; Still Not Dead; I’ll Fly Away.