He’s a country icon, accomplished songwriter, counterculture hero and activist. It doesn’t get much bigger than Willie Nelson, a living legend if there ever was one and the biggest deal to headline the Puyallup Fair grandstand this year. His Thursday night concert sold out at 10,056 strong, and it was no wonder as he and his Family band – featuring little sis, Bobbie on piano – reminded fans why Nelson is still one of the of the most beloved figures in all of popular music.
The no-longer-redheaded stranger was dressed simply in black t-shirt, pants and cowboy hat as he and the band kicked things off with predictable opener, “Whiskey River.” Later, he sported a few of those trademark red headbands, which he’d toss into the crowd as sweaty souvenirs. But his most important accessory was, of course, Trigger, the holey 1969 Martin classic guitar that he’s been toting around the country for decades.
Granted, ol’ Willie’s 77-year-old fingers aren’t as limber as they once were, and his playing seemed a little rough during an early set medley that included “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” And his singing was a bit more hushed than during his ‘70s and ‘80s heyday, with lines from “On the Road Again,” among other mid-set selections, half-spoken at times. The crowd did its part, helping out by singing along to Nelson’s most iconic hooks.
But any erosion of the man’s skills was overshadowed by the versatility of his guitar playing and the brilliance of his songwriting. From the poignancy of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” to the romantic lament of “Always on My Mind,” Nelson’s eloquent verses struck a chord. And later in the set, funnier, newer material drew winking attention to his advancing age and reputation for toking the “wacky tobacky” every now and then.
“Too many pain pills too much pot, tryin’ to be something that I’m not.” The crowd erupted as Nelson sang the opening couplet to “I Ain’t Superman,” a song introduced as a little something he wrote when “the doctors said go home and shut up” a few years back.
The audience was similarly responsive to his hilarious “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Any More,” from 2008’s “Moment of Forever” album. Among it’s best couplets: “I used to fake a heart attack and fall down on the floor. But even I don’t think that’s funny any more.”
But for my money, his interpretive covers of other people’s material were among the biggest highlights during a 90-minute set. “Let’s do one for Waylon,” he called out as he and the band dug into the upbeat “Good-Hearted Woman.” Hank Williams was well represented, of course, with “(Jambalaya) On the Bayou” and “Hey Good Lookin’” later on. And locals especially related to Blind Willie’s “Rainy Day Blues” – for some reason.
“Welcome to Washington, Willie,” a woman behind me called out, relating to those lines about gray skies and showers.
But my favorite song of the night was Nelson’s cover of Arlo Guthrie hit “City of New Orleans,” a song penned by folkie Steve Goodman. A little sparkle crept into Willie’s eye and he belted out that uplifting chorus with more gusto than he’s had just a few minutes before. “Good morning America, how are you? Don’t you know me I’m your native son?”
What a great song and what a wonderful set. Nelson recorded “Funny How Time Slips Away” back in the ‘60s, but the lyrics are more apropos with each passing year. Let’s hope ol’ Willie has a few more years left on the road and that he gets around these parts again real soon.
Willie Nelson & Family set list
Sept. 16, 2010
Still Is Still Moving to Me
Beer for My Horses
Medley: Funny How Time Slips Away; Crazy; Night Life
Help Me Make It Through the Night
Me and Bobby McGee
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
Good-Hearted Woman (“Let’s do one for Waylon.”)
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always on My Mind
Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away
Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Momma’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Hey Good Lookin’
Move It On Over
I Gotta Get Drunk
I Ain’t Superman
You Don’t Think I’m Funny Any More
Rainy Day Blues
Georgia On My Mind
City of New Orleans
All the Girls I’ve Loved Before
Healing Hands of Time
Bloody Mary Morning
I Saw the Light