If you’ve attended a solo Willie Nelson show you know what’s coming. Just as sure as a Texas Summer is hot and that your enchiladas at El Fenix will begin with chips and salsa, the Redheaded Stranger will deliver a canon of some of the best and most loved American songs spanning his 40 year career. The Johnny Bush and Paul Stroud penned Whiskey River, Good Hearted Woman – written by Willie and his partner in outlaw brotherhood Waylon Jennings, Crazy – the Willie penned 1962 #2 country hit for Patsy Cline that was originally written for, and turned down by, Billy Walker, Funny How Time Slips Away – a song Walker did record and had a hit, the Kris Kristofferson penned Help Me Make It Through The Night and Me And Bobby McGee (made famous by fellow Texan Janis Joplin), Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – the Fred Rose penned song that was originally performed in 1945 by Roy Acuff , later by Hank Williams but made into a hit by Willie on his thematic masterpiece Red Headed Stranger. The list goes on but you get the idea.
Even after a reprieve in 2004 due to a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome (well not much of a reprieve, Willie wrote two current song list staples, Superman and You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore – during the 4 months he was supposed to take it easy) Willie still plays the weathered Martin N-20 with now defunct Baldwin pickups (aka Trigger) in his signature syncopated style that made him too jazzy for 60’s era Nashville but endeared him to an audience that weren’t typical country music fans back in Austin. Trigger bares a ragged hole in it’s body right where decades of downstrokes have landed blows – surrounded by signatures of Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson and others this singular instrument has transcended it’s original intent. It now stands as a talisman as well as, as it’s name suggests, a trusted and loyal friend.
Very few artists have achieved the status of American icon. It’s a short and select group that have one thing in common, they transcend the level of working musician and become a representation of the music itself. 40’s pop, Frank Sinatra, Jazz, Louie Armstrong – Country Music in the minds of many Americans born in the last 40 years is Willie Nelson.
After all this time the humility is still there, thanking the audience after songs or an especially dexterous turn on Trigger. The 1000 watt smile, the twinkle in his eye, the humor, the worn bandanas tossed into an adoring crowd. Except for his well-known predilection for ganja (of which some of the Bay Area’s finest found its way on stage tossed up by a fan that abides) the man could have easily had a place in politics.
Seeing Willie is like visiting the Grand Canyon or the giant Sequoias – he’s less a musician and more like a force of nature, you’re awed to be in the presence of a national treasure and, after repeated visits, subtleties arise that are only discernible after a level of familiarity is achieved. The classics begin to expose nuances, phrasing, odd time signatures – once past the initial awe there’s a lasting beauty that emerges. The audience is enthralled and vocal – “yeehaws” and “ahh-haaas” ring out between each song. Not surprising, this is as far west we you can get without getting your boots wet.
Willie’s son Lukas and his band, the Promise of the Real, opened the show with their brand of jamband psychedelic fusion. Playing in this venue where the Grateful Dead performed so many times must have been a dream come true for these guys. I’m not particularly a fan of this style of music but one thing did stand out for me; whether fronting his own band or supporting his dad Lukas Nelson is becoming a master guitar player in his own right.
The night was topped off for me meeting Linda, a fellow blogger with #1 Willie Nelson fan site Still is Still Moving. Linda’s site is the go-to place for all thngs Willie.
And then there was the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels in VIP seating within the security barrier right in front of us. The outlaw mojo was in full force on this cool, San Francisco night.
Willie Nelson : Stardust – The Fillmore – 1/17/09