Review and Photography by Craig Hunter Ross
Having been postponed from two previous dates going back to the Fall of 2011, to say that Willie Nelson’s performance at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC was eagerly anticipated by the sold out crowd in attendance would be the understatement of the year.
While some familiar faces may be gone, most notably the late Bee Spears on bass and the now retired Jody Payne on guitar, the “Nelson Family” remains for the most part intact.
Paul English still takes his place behind the snare, though some songs are now played by younger brother Billy; the ever loyal Mickey Raphael is camped out stage left with his harmonica case; and it wouldn’t be the “Nelson Family” literally, without the grace and elegance of Sister Bobbie at the piano.
It would be the longest tenured “member” of the family though, Trigger, that would first grace the stage.
You see Trigger, Willie’s Martin N-20 acoustic guitar, has been with him longer than any other member of the band. So it seemed more than appropriate that Trigger was placed on the stage a few moments before the scheduled show time, as if to enjoy a few moments in the spotlight alone, before being gently picked up by the right hand of his faithful master.
The audience is a mirror of America. It’s a diverse standing room only crowd on hand, made up of multiple ages and multiple races. Everyone on this night is an old friend, even if they have just met for the first time.
The good vibe in the room and general down home atmosphere demonstrates the popularity Nelson has achieved in his over five decades of recording and performance, as well as his unique ability to bring people together through song, without even trying.
With not a set list in sight on the stage, it’s vintage Nelson. He’ll play what he wants, when he wants and the family will follow along without missing a beat.
The hits come out of the chute fast and furious with the crowd joining in for rousing renditions of “Whiskey River,” “Shoeshine Man” and “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses.”
Nelson would demonstrate his exceptional and far too oft underrated guitar skills on ‘Funny How Time Slips Away,” leading right into “Crazy” and ‘Night Life” in succession.
Willie Nelson was engaging and talkative with the audience between songs, almost cheerleading as he’d call out hit after hit. And they were all hits, with the crowd singing along or responding on cue during every number.
Well known hits such as “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman” were all placed perfectly in a well-paced show, as Nelson obviously is a master of feeling the crowd response and guiding them along from beginning to end.
There were no hits left out and even a few surprises; such as Sister Bobbie’s piano instrumental “Down Yonder” from the classic Red Headed Stranger album and “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour?” the guitar instrumental from the recording Teatro.
There would even be a few gospel numbers near show’s end, each of which had the 9:30 Club resembling more an old fashioned revival tent than a major metropolitan concert venue.
At 79 years old, Willie Nelson is still going strong on stage and had a smile on his face the entire evening…and so did every other face in the room.
So the next time you hear that familiar twang or that ever distinct guitar tone, say a little prayer of thanks for that Red Headed Stranger from Texas…and be thankful that he’s “On the Road Again.”