This show was supposed to celebrate two of country music’s greatest stars, their enduring friendship and their most recent collaboration.
Last June, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard released the album “Django & Jimmie” and shortly after that announced a co-headlining tour that included a stop at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena on Monday night.
In March, however, Haggard announced he would be leaving the tour temporarily to recover from double pneumonia. Haggard died April 6, his 79th birthday, but Nelson continued the tour, enlisting Jamey Johnson and Ryan Bingham as support.
Nearly 5,800 fans filled the arena in Independence. Nelson made little mention of Haggard until the end of his set, when he and his Family Band performed “It’s All Goin’ to Pot,” a track from “Django & Jimmie,” then two Haggard tunes, “Okie From Muskogee” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
Johnson, however, spent most of his set paying respect to Haggard — and he has the perfect voice to do it. He opened with “I Guess I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “The Fighting Side of Me” and “The Day I Started Loving You Again.”
He was joined by a surprise guest, Lee Ann Womack, for “You Take Me For Granted,” a song written by Haggard’s former wife, Leona Williams, then “Silver Wings” and “Yesterday’s Wine,” a Nelson song that Haggard recorded as a duet with George Jones.
Bingham, who opened the show, also paid tribute to Haggard. His set, which included a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” ended with “Mama Tried,” one of Haggard’s best known and most beloved songs.
Nelson was in good form, vocally and otherwise. His voice was firm and his phrasing under control. His guitar playing was exceptional at times, like during his aggressive lead at the end of “Crazy,” his blues-drenched lead during the cover of “Texas Flood,” performed by his son, Lucas Nelson, and during the sophisticated Django Reinhardt instrumental from “Django & Jimmie.”
The crowd joined in on several songs, including “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” Toward the end of the set, Nelson paid respect to Hank Williams with “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” and “Move It On Over.”
After the three-song Haggard tribute, Nelson ended the show with his standard medley: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away.” This evening, however, it felt more like the perfect closing to an evening proving that the best music has a spirit that is enduring and unbreakable.
Whiskey River; Still Is Still Moving to Me; Beer for My Horses; Good Hearted Woman; Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life; Texas Flood; Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys; Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground; On the Road Again; Always on My Mind; Jambalaya (On the Bayou); Hey, Good Lookin’; Move It On Over; Nuages; Shoeshine Man; Georgia; I’ve Been to Georgia on a Fast Train; It’s All Goin’ to Pot; Okie From Muskogee; Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die; Will the Circle Be Unbroken?/I’ll Fly Away