As I stood at an upright table overlooking 2nd Street and Guadalupe on the Moody Theater balcony, a chilling thought ran through my head: I didn’t know much about Willie Nelson.
To Austinites with half an ear, the notion is blasphemy. How could any music reviewer worth his salt not know the King of Outlaw Country’s body of work? His statue is outside the dang theater.
Walking to my seat, I knew this was no longer a simple concert for me. It was a crash course on a living legend, plying his trade for the 18th time on the Austin City Limits stage. True to form, he did not disappoint.
Willie’s Set Full of Classics
The show started rough. Several times through “Whiskey River,” Willie’s guitar picking was either woefully behind his backing band or completely off-kilter. It’s one thing to play with a wistful, devil-may-care attitude. It’s quite another to sound like the monitors aren’t on.
Luckily, by the third song, the crowd-pleasing “Beer For My Horses,” the artist settled into a cozy groove and never looked back. His picking began to dance with the railroad tempo like a charmed snake. The line “We’ll raise our glass against evil forces” was echoed back by a raucous crowd ready to sing along at every opportunity.
Crowd participation was the order of the day, especially when Willie’s voice needed a breather. The Moody burst with call-and-answer classics like “On The Road Again” and “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” all to his grinning delight. Bandanas were tossed into the crowd as souvenirs for exceptional singing/shouting.
Through the course of the evening, Willie and his band ticked all the boxes. Both Merle and Waylon were honored through spot-on renditions of “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Good Hearted Woman,” respectively. “Little Sister” (Bobby Nelson) tickled the ivories during two instrumentals, and harmonica guru Mickey Raphael kept the county rhythms moving and grooving.
Personal highlights included a lovely version of “Fly Me to the Moon” and the seminal soundtrack to many of my adolescent breakups, “You Were Always On My Mind.” Willie’s voice was sensational during both. Charming, smooth, and seasoned from decades of use, the words felt filtered through an old tube amp, warm and heartbreaking.
Crash Course Worth Taking
When Willie closed the set with “I’ll Fly Away,” the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. Willie acknowledged the crowd with a genuine smile, tossed the remained of his bandanas into the crowd, and slowly exited stage left.
Throughout Mr. Nelson’s trim 60-minute set, the Moody Theater was transformed into an old gin joint. With a set of classics, covers, and genuine fun, Willie bookmarked what may be his final ACL performance with style, gentle grace, and intimacy.
Experiencing Willie Nelson work his magic at the show he launched 44 years ago was exactly the sort of crash course I needed. Before, I had a passing respect for the Red Headed Stranger. Now, consider me a proper fan.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What’s your favorite Willie Nelson tune?
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