NEWPORT – Outlaw country music legend Willie Nelson has not lost a step, even at 80 years old. Last Saturday night, a diverse crowd gathered at the Newport Yachting Center for another edition of the Nantucket Nectars Sunset Music Series featuring Willie Nelson & Family.
A warm cheer greeted the band as they took the stage and jumped into a rolling jamboree version of “Whiskey River.” Nelson’s guitar - named Trigger - produced an electric twang that I wouldn’t have expected to come from a beat up old Martin N20. Nelson’s converted classical guitar has been rescued - by Nelson - from a house fire, evaded capture by the Internal Revenue Service during Nelson’s financial troubles, and has survived decades with a hole worn through its body from endless playing without a pick guard. The guitar still sounded amazing! Long time friend and band mate Mickey Raphael backed Nelson with gale force harmonica through the opening tunes.
The crowd raised up their glasses during the recent hit “Beer For My Horses” originally recorded with fellow country musician Toby Keith. Hearing Nelson and his minimalist band perform the tune, sans Keith, and all that goes along with pop country music production was quite refreshing. Nelson lay back on guitar during the verse, letting the band take the reins with a raw un-refined tone that was simply real. The crowd sang along with Nelson and Trigger during the familiar chorus, “Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses!”
Moving right along, the band executed the classic “Good Hearted Woman” written by another outlaw country music mogul, Waylon Jennings. Raphael spiced the tune up with some quick but hot harmonica licks. Nelson and Trigger followed suit with a sweet solo of their own.
“Mamas don’t let your babies grown up to be cowboys,” Nelson warned during the aptly named song, which won Nelson and Jennings a Grammy Award in 1979 for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group. The tune, originally written by Ed Bruce in 1976, must have fallen on deaf ears, as there didn’t appear to be too many doctors or lawyers in the near capacity crowd. Halfway through the number, Nelson tossed his trademark red bandanna into the audience, the first of many during the show. “Well hello there,” Nelson greeted the crowd. “It’s been a long, long time. I guess I’m doing mighty fine,” he announced before playing a swingy mixed-tempo version of his tune “Crazy.” The song was accompanied by inspired percussion, which featured the use of brush fans, chimes, and rattles. Nelson ripped a magnificent bluesy-jazz solo that lead into a fury of fretwork. By the end of the solo, Nelson's hands were a blur as he grinded the nylon strings of his classical guitar, proving that he still has that magic spark! I thought he might have burned another hole in his Martin.
The band took it down a few notches during a sweet country version of the soul classic “Georgia On My Mind.” I decided to wander from my seat and check out the scene. During this unhurried interlude I saw a girl dancing along in time with a hula-hoop outside the tent. Keeping a slow tempo, the band performed the original “You Were Always On My Mind.” Again Nelson held it down on lead with a solo that I could only describe as Cuban blues surf guitar. It was amazing to see how Nelson continues to spruce up his music with elements from many genres.
After the slow numbers, Nelson & Family lit it back up with a jumping rendition of the Carl Perkins tune “Matchbox.” Nelson’s sister, Bobbie, worked the piano so hard I felt like I was in a dusty old honky-tonk. On harmonica, Raphael did his best impersonation of a runaway train with Nelson riding shotgun and ringing out some serious outlaw sounds from his old N20.
During the song “You’ll Never Know” Nelson’s fretwork was reminiscent of a Mexicana version of the solo from “Hotel California.” This led into a couple more of Nelson’s newer songs like “Superman” and “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” which showcased the star’s humorous side.
The band displayed great depth performing the gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away,” which featured Nelson’s sister and longtime band member Bobbie emotionally tickling the ivories. They followed suit with what Nelson called a new gospel song. “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” was a testament to the activist’s open position on the legalization of marijuana.
Nelson & Family closed out the evening with the Hank Williams tune “I Saw The Light.” The audience stomped and clapped along with the up-tempo beat. Nelson took his bow and was on the road again faster than any band I’ve seen in history. Unfortunately there was no encore.
Though the night seemed short, finishing out at 9:30 p.m. on the dot, the wily outlaw kept pace throughout the hour and a half set. Unlike many singers with extended careers, Nelson's vocals and guitar work has remained as clear, sweet, and authentic as an analog record straight out of its cellophane wrapping.
If you go: For listings on the rest of the Nantucket Nectars Sunset Music Series log onto www.newportwaterfrontevents.com .