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Review: Willie Nelson, well-preserved as always, hits the road again at the Florida Strawberry Festival



Somewhere along the way, maybe during his mini-set salute to Hank Williams, Willie Nelson lost his hat.

It might come as no surprise that at nearly 84, the Red-Headed Stranger still has plenty of hair up there. He moves a little slower and he’s got a little paunch, but otherwise he is, he’ll tell you, chemically well-preserved.

Why is why, despite canceling a few shows due to illness in February, Nelson was back on the road again Friday afternoon at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, one of the last country outlaws left standing.

Whether Willie arrived any worse from the wear, well, it’s hard to say. Well-preserved he may be – the Strawberry Festival is emphatically substance-free, but hey, what happens on the Honeysuckle Rose stays on the Honeysuckle Rose – but if you’re looking for polish, keep looking.

As opposed to his precise and often beautiful studio albums – including God’s Problem Child, due in April – live Willie rambles and tumbles all over the place, his scattershot tone and inflection pulling as much from Bob Dylan and Lou Reed as any of Nashville’s greats. The way Willie sings it, it’s a miracle Dylan hasn’t already covered Still Is Still Moving to Me.

But no one comes to a Willie Nelson concert for perfection. His work these days is influenced as much by jazz and swing as outlaw country. There was a loungey, 2 a.m. charm to the imperfect edges of Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground. Funny How Time Slips Away drifted along at the pace of the end of the night, with a lonesome harmonica spackling the gaps in Nelson’s cadence; then faded into that all-time jukebox chestnut Crazy and barroom burner Night Life. Late in the set, the band played an unhurried instrumental that was, with its acoustic instrumentation, essentially all jazz.

At Nelson’s urging, the crowd sang along on Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. And of course they cheered and sang when he played On the Road Again, twanging tight, tart notes out of Trigger, his faithful guitar.

And dang if by the middle of the set, he didn’t settle into a groove. The simple piano-tinged classic Always On My Mind sounded surprisingly subdued and tender on the hot, crowded Wish Farms Soundstage tarmac. Snappy covers of Williams’ Jambalaya (On the Bayou), Hey Good Lookin’ and Move It On Over proved he’d be a mighty fine classic country tribute act, if he wasn’t classic country himself.

The hits kept coming in the sizzling Florida heat: If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time; Geogia On My Mind, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, I’ll Fly Away, I Saw the Light.

“Here’s one for Merle,” he said before lighting up the crowd with their duet It’s All Going to Pot.

Ah, Merle. It was almost exactly a year ago that Merle Haggard was supposed to play the Strawberry Festival, before an illness forced him to cancel. Six weeks later, he was gone.

Time might well be catching up to Willie Nelson, too, as it’s caught up to so many of his contemporaries, and will inevitably catch up to us all. But he was preserved well enough to get the crowd to its feet on Friday, especially with two songs directed at those who can’t help point out his age: Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, and Still Not Dead Again Today.

Any day Wille Nelson wakes up breathing is cause for celebration. He’s back on the road again, with a head full of hair, a song in his step and lungs full of something just as sweet. Hand him his hat and look out.


The Florida Strawberry Festival continues through March 12 with concerts at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. each day. For a full schedule, click here.

-- Jay Cridlin

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