It’s a fact: On stage, in performance, Willie Nelson can do no wrong.
He can sing-talk his songs and choose not to prattle between them or spend precious stage time joking with his band.
He can play his worn, beat-up-looking acoustic guitar (he calls it “Trigger”) for as long as the mood hits in a variety of cool and interesting styles and then switch gears into singing a medley of familiar hits that never cease to startle a listener when heard live.
He can sing – with his distinct twang and nasal quality -- any darn tune he wants. Even his technical crew has no clue which songs from among hundreds he will select. Nelson doesn’t predetermine a set list: it’s whatever he feels like singing at that moment in time.
Those moments were many at the Uptown Theatre last Tuesday.
Wearing his customary red bandanna (which he tossed into the audience and repeated a few times, with his usual supply on hand), dark jeans and T-shirt, Nelson appeared with shorter grey braids and beard than I remember from his last visit to Napa, almost three years ago to the day, when he played the Opera House.
But the same frenetic pace was in motion as he began the 90-minute set with his enduring compositions, “Funny, How Time Slips Away” and before finishing the song, segueing into “Crazy,” followed by an up-tempo version of the Kris Kristofferson classic, “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Backed by just the right complement of piano, percussion, electric bass guitar and a stellar harmonica player (dressed nattily in dark suit and white shirt), Nelson owned center stage, with white light outlining his small stature while the band appeared almost hidden on the dark stage.
Occasionally, house spotlights would be turned on full force when Nelson “signaled” the audience to join in on a chorus or three during songs like “Good Hearted Woman” by Waylon Jennings or the heartfelt “Always on My Mind,” and Nelson’s signature work, “On the Road Again.”
We didn’t get full versions of these songs nor did we hear them in any kind of conventional, this-is-how-it-was-recorded fashion.
That’s the beauty of a Willie Nelson concert. There’s unpredictability in song choice, presentation, guitar work and the multiplicity of musical genres from which he draws inspiration (from country to jazz to the the American Songbook).
One of Nelson’s dazzling guitar solos paid tribute to Django Reinhardt with the piece, “Jalousie.” The folk song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” flowed into the gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” and a few originals I’d not heard: “I Ain’t Superman,” a tribute to long time drummer Paul English entitled “Me & Paul,” and maybe, just maybe, a new signature work, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
People-watching was almost as much fun as the concert. Western wear galloped out of the closets: boots, Stetson hats, bandannas and cowboy attire was visible throughout the house. My favorite tee-shirt was one worn by a woman who may have been near Nelson’s age of 78.
It read: “Let Willie Smoke.”
After more than four decades of extensive touring, Nelson’s respect for his audience never wanes: his trademark ending at the Uptown was a handshake from the stage with those lucky enough to be sitting in the front rows.
The evening was truly a love-fest for one of America’s most popular, enduring and revered singer-songwriters. And if Willie Nelson does run for President – as new posters on sale proclaimed -- he’s sure to have 850 votes in his pockets from his night in wine country!
Opening act, Attwater, based in Sacramento and comprised of the songwriting team of Erika Attwater and Jonathan Richards (with special guest on mandolin and violin), warmed up the audience with country-tinged/folk harmonies in original songs about the trials and tribulations of what else – love, of course.
Erica Attwater’s strong vocals conveyed feeling and depth. She is someone to watch having just signed on to Nashville-based Twenty Ten Music, an artist-development, music publishing and film/TV music placement company, co-founded by Grammy award-winning record producer Charlie Peacock (in the audience that night).