A ticket to a Willie Nelson show can be a bit of a gamble. Ever the road warrior, Nelson, who turned 81 in April, is prone to an off night here and there. But when he’s on, he can still deliver a show for the ages.
Sunday night at Starlight Theatre, before a near sold-out crowd of 7,500-plus, Nelson was as on as he could possibly be, delivering an energetic 78-minute set filled with almost two dozen songs, all colored vividly by his inimitable vocal style and his nimble, genre-hopping way of playing guitar.
Nelson headlined a bill that included Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Alison Krauss and Union Station.
Isbell, a former member of the Drive-By Truckers, is a Southerner whose songs typically are narratives thick with details and imagery. His music leans toward alternative country and ’70s country-rock. His 35-minute set included tracks off “Southeastern” his most recent studio album, including “Live Oak,” “Stockholm” and “Traveling Alone.”
Krauss followed with a set that showed off her porcelain voice and her band’s inexhaustible precision. She and her bluegrass band, Union Station — Jerry Douglas, Dan Tyminski, Ron Block and Barry Bales — have been together more than 20 years, and it shows.
Their harmonies and instrumentals were impeccable and spot-on, suffering no obvious dropped or misfired notes, including Douglas’ fiery instrumentals on the dobro on Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and Chick Corea’s “Spain.”
Her set included favorites like “The Lucky One,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” and “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” plus two tracks from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack: “Down to the River to Pray” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” featuring Tyminski on lead vocals.
Nelson followed with a set that featured many of the songs for which he is best known. He opened with “Whiskey River,” then barnstormed through almost two dozen songs.
He was in a spry mood all night, arousing some singalongs, waving to fans up front and tossing souvenirs into the crowd, including a bandana or two.
His voice was strong and agile throughout, and his guitar work was at times spectacular, whether plucking bluesy leads or strumming percussively and tossing some dissonance into the mix.
There were plenty of highlights: his jazzy rearrangements of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life,” played back-to-back-to-back; the singalong that erupted during “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”; his covers of Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman,” Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”; Nelson’s version of Django Reinhardt’s instrumental “Nuages”; and his dazzling intro to “I Never Cared for You.”
Throughout, he shared the spotlight with his band, including his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano and blues harpist Mickey Raphael.
There was no official encore, but he closed the show by summoning his openers onstage to join him on several tunes. The last two of those came from different spiritual places: “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a nod to Willie’s favorite habit, then Hank Williams’ gospel classic, “I Saw the Light.”
As that song drew to a close, Nelson put down his guitar and exited stage right, waving to the crowd, which showered him with a hero’s ovation. It was a fitting close to a superb show. On this warm summer evening, Willie Nelson was the light.
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Alison Krauss and Union Station: Let Me Touch You for Awhile; Dustbowl Children; Who’s Your Uncle; The Lucky One; Baby, Now That I’ve Found You; Ghost in This House; Rain Please Go Away; Sawing on the Strings; Wild Bill Jones; Every Time You Say Goodbye; Jerry Douglas instrumental (American Tune/Spain); Hey, Brother; The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn; Paper Airplane; I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow. Encore: When You Say Nothing at All; Whiskey Lullaby; Down to the River to Pray; Your Long Journey.
Willie Nelson: Whiskey River; Still Is Still Moving to Me; Beer for My Horses; Kansas City; Funny How Time Slips Away; Crazy; Night Life; Me and Paul; Shoeshine Man; Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys; Good Hearted Woman; Help Me Make It Through the Night; Georgia on My Mind; Georgia on a Fast Train; Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground; On the Road Again; Always on My Mind; Nuages; Bring It On; Band of Brothers; I Never Cared for You; Will the Circle Be Unbroken; I’ll Fly Away; Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die; I Saw the Light.