CLEARWATER — We are living in a golden age of golden rock gods, indefatigable icons who didn't just nurture pop music these past 50 years — they basically invented the stuff. These leathered warriors refuse to stop roaring: Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (both 69), Paul McCartney (70), Bob Dylan (71), Chuck Berry (86) and B.B. King (87).
And then there's country royal Willie Nelson, the ponytailed pride of Abbott, Texas, who turned 80 earlier this week then bolted for a soldout Ruth Eckerd Hall on Wednesday, singing and picking for 90 minutes with fervor and flavor and the oomph of a much younger superman. He also displayed catlike reflexes; when he first ambled onstage, someone in the crowd of 2,180 fired a hemp necklace his way. Ol' Willie caught it clean with a smile.
I'm telling you, there's something immortal going on here. At one point, the Red Headed Stranger deconstructed a medley of his own progenitive classics: Funny How Time Slips Away, Crazy, Nightlife. He emphasized each song's warm, timeless soul, but seemingly crooned around, over, under the melody. It was breathtaking and challenging and ultimately dazzling, especially when he wrapped each heartbreaker in a sorrowful guitar solo, his fingers attacking that holy guitar with blazing mariachi speed.
Supernatural forces aside, Nelson's epic durability is partly testament to an earlier time when record labels nurtured talent for the long haul. Patience existed back then; iTunes and its ephemeral hit-today game plan did not. Willie, like Sir Paul and the Stones, was built to last. They were granted a momentum they never lost.
Nelson was also built to age; after all, he sounded like he was 80 when he was 20. His voice has been preserved in a sepia-toned fog — or whatever funny stuff he was smoking before the gig. Like Dylan, Nelson indulges in a talkin' blues, sweet nothings alternating with croon, as on a spare, devastating cover of buddy Kris Kristofferson's Help Me Make It Through the Night.
Nelson's style of singing and playing off the beat, off the melody, took a little getting used to; go-to opener Whiskey River was a disjointed puzzler, Willie in Picasso form. But by the time he arrived at such word-smart beauties as Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground each song could be consumed in rich, flavorful bites, a little guitar here, some sly poetry there.
Nelson can do whatever he wants these days, so he honored Hank Williams (including Move It On Over), gave a cheeky rendition of his duet with Toby Keith, Beer for My Horses.
But it was when he gandered back at his own career that the night got tingly. On the Road Again was a singalong gallop, all grins and big choruses and how-fun-is-this looks bouncing about in the crowd.
And for Always on My Mind, he closed his eyes and gave one of the most natural readings of a song I've heard in a while. And maybe that's another reason Willie and Paul and Mick and Keith are still going strong. Because those songs, no matter how many times they've performed them, can still hurt and heal. Because this is real and powerful magic. And that's the only way they know.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.