Show Review: Willie Nelson @ ACL (11/19)

Willie is the godfather of Austin being weird. Or at least, that is what we are told. A rebel, legendary country artist, yet a through and through hippy, political activist (kind of), he is responsible for giving the world a collection of amazing songs, but away from those songs, he has a legacy of creating legends around him.

His song craft, both writing and interpreting, was on display Monday night at ACL TV. It was his eighteenth taping, but his first in fifteen years with his band, his way, the songs he wants to play. The recent flurry of activity from the octogenarian has raised eyebrows. Is it a new energy or is it finality? Was this the first of many last times?

Read on for more thoughts and some photos from the venerable Scott Newton.

I started the night on the porch with Scott, a man that has taken more iconic photos of Willie than most people have taken of their lunch. I asked if Willie was indeed the single artist he had photographed the most and a realization came across his face. “Yeah, yeah I guess so.” Maybe the finality was hitting Scott, too.

The start of the taping had Terry doing his customary intro. He usually starts with a bit of history, but Willie’s history is singular. He was the first, a pilot episode when I was two years old. I am lucky enough to know members of Bill Arhos’s family. Bill was the visionary, the creator. He passed a few years back, and though I didn’t know Bill well, we attended the ceremony at ACL Live to hear stories and share a hug or two. Paying tribute to the show, I stared leaning forward with my chin in my hands, like a kid in front of the TV.

Willie’s set started very familiar, “Whiskey River” set the tone, though an odd one at first. It was almost a jazz interpretation of the iconic song, moreso than I remember in recent performances I have seen. Phrasing, key, chords and tone all varied throughout. It was a trend all night for me. I recognized that it was the songs that he was known for, the iconic things that exist in our heads, like he knew he wouldn’t perform them as we hear them in our heads, the songs that don’t “need” to be performed. We know what they sound like, how they sound when he performs them. “On the Road Again”, same. We sang we clapped along, but was it inspired. Instead, it was the songs that he chose to play, by Waylon, by Merle, where he and Trigger came to life. The solos, a little better, his voice just a bit lifted to meet the emotion he felt and carried singing and playing them.

His little sister Bobbie was on piano, leading the band through a few honky-tonk dances to waltz to. In fact, I don’t think there is enough sawdust left in Austin anymore to properly coat the floor at 310 Willie Nelson St to get boots to the happiest place; belt buckles, Pearl or Lone Star with a whiskey. Also cool was the use of harmonica, sometimes as the just the harmonica solo wedged in, sometimes as the replacement for the accordion, sometimes a backup singer harmonizing. But it was Willie and Trigger were front and center, both on stage and in the mix. Ya know that thing when you do something well enough for long enough that your body settles into that stance or position permanently? That is Willie and Trigger, the red, white and blue neck hook guitar strap, right foot forward, head just floating inches away from the mic to give space or power to his words.

I think “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” hit me the hardest. It was beautiful.

The night included a few fun bits. Wardrobe took the starring role. Cheers from the crowd for his hat coming off, revealing a bandana. Cheers for the bandana coming off to be thrown into the crowd, only to have another bandana show up on his head upon returning to the guitar amp. The bandana thing repeated a few times. Each with applause and laughter. Remember, the whole legend status thing works in mysterious ways.

But it was the walk off stage, leaving the family to play on, that pulled my heartstrings. I could see from my vantage point the number of long hugs being given. In a post set debrief with a fellow photog turned writer for a night, the long hugs given, the ACL team seeking him out on the way to the dressing room, putting punctuation to a set that could very well be his last on the ACL stage.

Setlist after the photos…

All performance photos courtesy Scott Newton and KLRU TV.

Whiskey River (Johnny Bush cover)
Still Is Still Moving to Me
Beer for My Horses (Toby Keith cover)
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings cover)
Down Yonder
If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time (Lefty Frizzell cover)
Funny How Time Slips Away
Night Life
Twelfth Street Rag (Euday L. Bowman cover)
Fly Me to the Moon (Kaye Ballard cover)
It’s All Going to Pot (Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard cover)
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
Nuages (Django Reinhardt cover)
Shoeshine Man (Tom T. Hall cover)
Georgia on My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael cover)
I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver cover)
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys (Ed Bruce cover)
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always on My Mind (Brenda Lee cover)
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? ([traditional] cover)
I’ll Fly Away (Albert E. Brumley cover)

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