Nelson went on promptly at nine after sets from his children Lukas (with his band Promise of the Real) and Paula Nelson. He kicked off with the crowd-pleaser “Whiskey River.” His voice was a tad raspy at first and his acoustic guitar was practically the only thing those in the back of the venue could hear. The balance got better but during songs like “Still Is Still Moving to Me” and the bluesy “Shoeshine Man” (which featured tasteful solos from both Lukas Nelson on guitar and his aunt/Nelson’s older sister Bobbie on piano), the crowd got louder. Not louder as in hooting in approval. Louder as in having lengthy conversations.
The solos were a treat as Bobbie boogied with honky-tonk piano and Nelson himself stretched briefly into jazzy finger picking that often seemed interpretive and improvised. It was a bit of a struggle to hear the nuances of “Crazy” (his original, which Patsy Cline made a hit). Lukas Nelson took the lead on “Texas Flood.” The song - made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan - showcased the younger Nelson as a blues singer with a big voice. With his shaggy hair and mustache he looks as if he could’ve stepped out of the late `70s outlaw era.
Then it was what I think of as Mom’s portion of the show - songs from Nelson’s most loved records that my parents played when I was growing up. These include sing-alongs “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “On the Road Again,” “Always on My Mind,” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” He paid tribute to Hank Williams’ with “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey Good Lookin’,” and “Move It On Over.”
While it’s not a discredit to Nelson or his band, the volume could not compete with the crowd unless you were strategically placed near the stage. Throughout the night my mother and I cruised the club in search of satisfactory sights and sound. From the fourth level we could see Nelson in his signature bandana and braids clearly, but the party atmosphere was all talk/no listen. From the second we couldn’t see, but could hear the entire band well through the stream of drunken chatter. Finally, we found a perfect spot near the merchandise booth on the floor where the view and volume (possibly aided by the monitors on stage) were perfect. Yet not all 2,000 fans can stand stage side.
From there we heard “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Healing Hands of Time.” The latter featured a remarkable harmonica solo. There were moments that if I closed my eyes I could mistake that harmonica for a classical violin. Oddly enough it was the seasonally fitting “Jingle Bells” that raised the roof with almost the entire sold out crowd singing along followed by the lovely “Pretty Paper.” The sing-alongs continued as the Nelson family gathered `round one microphone to buoy their father through modern standards like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light.”
For those gathered on the floor - from suburbanites to local musicians; ages ranging from hipster twenty-somethings to those in Nelson’s age bracket - the sing-alongs seemed to melt away the sound issues and overzealous drunks. But what about those in reserved seats or that had staked out prime viewing at the back of the room? I heard several complaints about the low volume and the talking. One text from a friend that works at many large concerts and who’d heard similar complaints said: “It’s like people aren’t there to watch the band. The concert has become a cocktail party.” And a pretty pricey one at that.
I couldn’t help but wish that my mom’s first real (the first was rained out in the `80s) and possibly last Willie Nelson show had been held at a theater like the Knight where the atmosphere lends itself less to a rowdy party. That would cut down on the intimacy and the wannabe saloon environment, which songs like “Roll Me Up” (which he played late in the set) and “Whiskey River” lend themselves so well too.
Yet, considering Nelson’s skill as a songwriter and interpreter of others’ songs, I’d almost rather hear them in a setting where “Always On My Mind” would undoubtedly bring a tear to Mom’s eye.