Review: Sold-out Willie Nelson crowd clings to every note

Willie Nelson performs for sold-out crowd at Ruth Eckerd Hall Wednesday night. (JIM DAMASKE   |   Times)
Willie Nelson performs for sold-out crowd at Ruth Eckerd Hall Wednesday night. (JIM DAMASKE | Times)
Published March 1, 2018

"Don't you dare, lord. Don't you dare." That's what we were all thinking last month when Ruth Eckerd Hall announced that Willie Nelson had postponed his Feb. 15 show. Luckily, Willie hasn't slipped away quite yet.

The 84-year-old returned to the Clearwater stage Wednesday night to a sold-out rowdy crowd. He smiled and waved, sliding on his red, white and blue guitar strap. Easing right into Whiskey River, Willie made us jump out of our seats; and I was hollering as loud as every mee-maw and pop-pop next to me.

That's right, I partied with everyone's grandparents, and I loved every moment.

"We're definitely bringing down the median age tonight, aren't we?" asked some 40-something guy in the merchandise line with me. Sure, dude, but you've got at least a decade on me.

I wasn't there to make fun of the older crowd. I was there to enjoy a (thankfully) living legend.

After a few years immersing myself in today's country music, this honky-tonk newbie is now trying to play catch-up with all the genre's greats. My favorite artists today blend classic twang with trendy melodies. It's hard not hear Tammy Wynette in Kacey Musgrave's new song.

And the country outlaw has been keeping up with the young'uns in the industry. Nelson's got songs with Toby Keith (Beer For My Horses), Snoop Dogg (Roll Me Up) and the best Christmas song with Musgraves.

But the Red-Headed Stranger doesn't need to try to stay relevant. His music is timeless; his 50-plus year career proves it. No matter what, you'll know some words to On The Road Again. And he rallied through all those hits, the crowd gasping at the start of each one.

The few moments of peace were with Nelson's guitar. The vulnerable ballad Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground stunned the audience into silence; my neighbor clutching her husband's hand with tears in her eyes. He seamlessly went from the Patsy Cline's Crazy to Night Life with the twinkly strum of his strings, all of us clinging to every note.

Yeah, he's still got it. Did we ever doubt it?

Unlike most of the audience, I haven't been listening to Willie for decades. (It was actually nice to be part of a crowd not watching the concert through their phones.) But it doesn't matter. His tunes are full of sentiment — You Were Always On My Mind will always make me tear up.

But what struck a chord in us all was his song Still Not Dead, off his latest album God's Problem Child. It's a cheeky song that Nelson wrote when the Internet claimed him dead a few years ago. But after his recent bout of flu, we were all just there to celebrate that Willie ain't dead.

"Last night I had a dream that I died twice yesterday
And I woke up still not dead again today"

He ended that song with a wink. We gotcha, Willie.

Willie showed no signs of wear during the hour of hits. He took breaks, showcasing "little sister" Bobbie Nelson on piano, and throwing out bandanas to the front row, like he was Oprah or something.

To close the show, openers Los Lonely Boys joined him on stage for a lively version of I'll Fly Away. And even though the night was sprinkled with somber reminders that time slips away, Willie eased our worry. He's not going anywhere if he can help it. He's happy to be the Last Man Standing, a new song from yet another forthcoming album.

Willie will always be. And at any age, we can all take comfort in that.