Friday Night: Willie Nelson at the Fillmore
Review by Jonathan Kiefer
January, 16, 2009
Better Than: The last eight years?
It happened maybe three-quarters of the way through the evening, during that one loose-vamping instrumental interlude, when the red and the blue light shone down on him from either side just so, and the tightly pressed fans on the floor gazed up at him just so, and his head had a proud outward tilt: For a brief, weird, mixed-metaphor moment, Willie Nelson came somehow to resemble Shepard Fairey's poster of Barack Obama.
That made him about the closest thing to an actual black person in his own sold-out Fillmore crowd, but never mind. Why can't Nelson -- now 75, not at all red-headed, not at all a stranger, and apparently not at all ready to stop touring -- come to stand for hope and change and how far we've finally, arduously come? Soon enough, he and his family band were cruising into the evening's denouement with Steve Goodman's wistfully sturdy "City of New Orleans," whose chorus famously kicks off by asking, "Good morning, America, how are you?" and on this occasion seemed to prompt something like collective deep-breath reflection.
Not that the show was a downer or anything. Early on, it came on strong, with just enough beer-hoisting reverence from the pallid but class-mixed crowd to evoke all the honky-tonks through which Nelson came up those many years ago, and all the wide-sky backyard barbecues for which his records have become honorary soundtracks, besides.
And there was also his son Lukas, whose own band the Promise of the Real opened the show, and who wailed over potent, chugging blues by shredding string-bustingly hard on his Stratocaster. That's some change we can believe in.
Anyway, the idea that you ought to see Willie Nelson while you still can is more about your life expectancy than his. You've still got four more chances during the '09 installment of this more-or-less annual Fillmore residency, not to mention the 195-odd other dates he usually lines up in a given calendar year.
He'll leave the light on for you, and he'll leave the setlist alone, pretty much. He's got himself so comfortable in there, like a saddle he's broken in. Willie Nelson is an old man who does what the hell he wants, and he knows his familiarity is his draw. You go not to hear him reinvent the songs -- although those half-spoken vocals and squirrelly guitar solos can sometimes contain surprises -- but to let him reassure you that they'll always be here, as if freshly plucked from an eternal, infinitely medleyable continuum.
Standing wraithlike in the lights and the dope-smoke haze, he tossed his hat and several of his signature bandannas into the crowd, by which was revealed the grand old ponytail braid -- elemental, absurdly cosmic, like the root of an ancient tree. Let's go ahead and call Willie Nelson the only gray-haired man in America who can and should wear a ponytail, in the same way only he gets to stand before an enormous Texas flag, waving here and there to idolators, or pointing at You. And You. You too. Yes. We can.
Random Detail: It took five attempts for Pacifica's Meghan Peel, 25, to catch Willie Nelson's live show--and one lucky moment to catch his hat.
By the way: He's back at the Fillmore through Tuesday, January 20. And every show's almost certainly sold out.