Review: Willie Nelson brings his singular style, sound to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
Squint a little in just the right light and Willie Nelson’s right hand seems to melt into Trigger, his faithful camel-colored Martin N-20, whose face is every bit as stained and scarred as its owner’s.
After eons on the road together, maybe they actually are one and the same. On Wednesday, before a sold-out crowd of 2,200 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Nelson and Trigger led a four-piece band through a simple, familiar yet no less rollicking 90-minute set, their respective twangs as inimitable as ever.
This was not the Willie we all saw three nights prior at the Grammys, shined up and polished to play for French robots and witchy teenage Kiwis as part of an all-star tribute to his long-gone supergroup the Highwaymen. This was back-porch Willie, in all his craggy, rascally glory.
To be sure, if you’re looking for the fretboard precision of a Yoakam or a Gill, you won’t find it aboard the Honeysuckle Rose. Nelson’s fingers, like his voice, dance all over, under, around and occasionally nowhere near the tempo of his songs, juking this way and that while his band tries to keep pace underneath.
For most of the night, Nelson sang and played only in the general vicinity of the backing beat. It’s his way, his style; it’s Willie being Willie. Sometimes he’d whip a little too quickly through the solo of On The Road Again, and you’d swear you saw the drummer and bassist exchange cockeyed cackles.
But it’s all a big setup; Nelson can nail the right kicks and drop a tidy little solo when he feels like it, always with Trigger miked up for the moment. Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground was speckled with clean jazz notes and mariachi flourishes, and his cowboy-lullaby rendition of Django Reinhardt’s Nuages was downright lovely.
In any event, nothing Nelson delivers sounds overwrought or over-perfected. It sounds pure and raw and real, just as it always has. Even his setlist-staple medley of Funny How Time Slips Away, Crazy and Night Life – a murderer’s row of s---kicker classics – shambled at its own aimless pace until each song was done the way Nelson wrote it.
The second half of the set was a Piccadilly buffet of classic country and rockabilly, with Nelson paying homage to a few of the greats: Hank Williams’ Hey Good Lookin’ and Move It On Over, Tom T. Hall’s Shoeshine Man, Billy Joe Shaver’s Georgia on a Fast Train, Ray Charles’ Georgia On My Mind. Amid a closing run of spiritual standards (Will The Circle Be Unbroken, I’ll Fly Away, I Saw The Light), he knowingly tossed in one of his own, the hoot-worthy Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.
Nelson was on his feet the whole night, tossing bandanas into the crowd and never once betraying his age – although, to be fair, he did cop to forgetting a lyric on To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before. He laughed it off, and so did the crowd.
The dark truth, which none of us want to admit out loud, is that whenever a legend like Nelson comes to town, a part of you wonders if it could be their last trip. Nashville has lost legends like George Jones and Ray Price in the past year; peers like Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard aren’t getting any younger. Nelson’s had his own health scares in a hard-fought life, and he’ll turn 81 in April. You worry. You do.
But as long as Trigger still sings, you have to believe Nelson has a fighting chance against Father Time. When he plays, he plays his way, the pace of the world around him be damned. You just know he’ll go out that way, too.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*