Willie Nelson's concert in a less-than-packed Horseshoe Arena last night was a model of efficiency.
His bus backed through the doors of the coliseum at around 7:25 p.m., behind a stage that was a model of minimalism: one snare drum, two beat-up amps, a piano, and a couple of microphone stands. Willie appeared ten minutes later- wearing his trademark black t-shirt tucked into his old-man jeans (I'd call them dungarees if I actually knew what that meant), wearing a dime-store black felt hat that inevitably gave way to a series of pre-tied bandannas which he routinely pitched into the audience to their apparent great approval.
Without fanfare, he hitched up his pick-worn guitar Trigger - an instrument which, like Willie himself, has been rode hard and put up wet - with that funky hooked strap, and launched into a musical performance that was, well, workmanlike, if not inspiring. Did he know where he was? He never gave any indication - none of those "helloooooo, West Texas!" or "gee, it's great to be in Midland!" cliches employed by insincere lesser lights. In fact, in keeping with the theme of spareness, he wasted few words on the audience (a brief exception being his introduction of a couple songs - I Ain't Superman and You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore - he wrote while laid up following "that carpal surgery").
Willie's voice remains clear and strong, and his guitar playing, if not always precise, is consistently passionate. (And surprisingly energetic at times. During one song, the title of which escapes me at the moment, he jackhammered a crescendoing beat, steady as an electronic metronome, that made me fear that poor Trigger would finally shatter into a hundred shard, strings ricocheting throughout the venue, and possibly taking out one of Willie's big-haired female fans.)
He paid musical homage to some of the great "outlaw" country artists, including Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Charles (OK, that one's a stretch), and the original outlaw himself, Hank Williams. Sometimes, the tunes were almost unrecognizable as he put his on spin on the old songs, but that's forgivable. After four decades of singing them, you'd also be forgiven for trying to find something fresh.
Willie has surrounded himself with good musicians, which should surprise no one. His "little sister," Bobbie, is an excellent pianist, especially on the more honky-tonkyish numbers, and the virtuoso harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, brought a welcome dimension to the band's otherwise sparse sound.
Almost precisely 90 minutes after starting, he unhooked his guitar, tossed the last of the bandannas, and exited the stage. The crowd cheered expectantly, anticipating an encore in response to its standing ovation...an anticipation that wasn't fulfilled, as the roadies immediately began packing equipment and clearing the stage. But I heard no complaints about the short show; people were instead marveling, "well, he is almost 80, after all."
I'm not a huge fan of Willie Nelson's music (gee, was it that noticeable?), but I must admit that this was a very enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes (and I'm trying to ignore the fact that it worked out to $1/minute, based on our ticket prices). Every Texan should experience him in concert at least once, and find some comfort in a storytelling style that seems to be fading from the musical landscape.