Willie Nelson is a goddamn national treasure. With no less than six decades of work and 76 studio albums under his belt, not to mention the innumerable hits, the man has cemented himself as the great American country artist. Even at 85, the man continues to put out material at a breakneck pace and tour the country, most recently stopping here in Louisville at the Yum Center. Though age seems to be catching up with him, at least in the performance department, being in the presence of the outlaw himself, and singing along with the classics made for a memorable and enjoyable night.
Alison Krauss provided a fantastic pre-Willie set worthy a hearty chunk of the admission price. Her vocals were clean and polished as fine silver, and she exuded warmth and charisma. The harmonies with her fellow band mates during “Down in the River to Pray” were tight a hell and marked the musical high of the entire night. Simply beautiful stuff.
The Red Headed Stranger shuffled out soon after and kicked off his set with the classic “Whiskey River.” As he crooned on about the amber current, it became clear his voice was not quite what it used to be; Willie spoke-sang, occasionally managing to reach a high mark (“Always on My Mind” was Willie’s vocal highlight of the night). Another recurring theme that became clear during “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” was letting the audience sing the chorus on their own. These aren’t negatives, mind you. Instead of the prime steak it used to be, Willie’s voice has become more of an aged jerky, and his tunes have so many excellent hooks, who wouldn’t love singing along?
The middling stuff came more with his guitar-paying and stage presence. Whenever an extended solo came along, Willie would twiddle his six-string like he was playing along to a totally different song. It seemed as if his earpiece was off and he couldn’t hear the rest of the band. It was clear he still had it in him during the songs with a structure and melody, but otherwise it came across as awkward. Another uncomfortable moment came when Alison Krauss’ entire band came out to stand around awkwardly on stage for “I’ll Fly Away.” It was a lovely performance, but the eye couldn’t help but focus on the lost puppy band members.
Finally, Willie seemed to just do his thing, and leave the stage in barely an hour. I can’t blame him at his age, but a story or two, or maybe even a small fireside chat, would have been very welcome. The concert was left at more of a greatest hits rundown, which was fine and dandy considering the sheer number of hits the man has to enjoy, and the areas in which Willie lacked, Alison Krauss’ excellent performance made up for. It was gratifying and enjoyable to witness an icon live on stage. Some may say I’m cutting him too much slack, but he’s earned it.