Last night Willie Nelson & Family played to a sold-out crowd at Celebrity Theatre--and it was quite the family affair. Not just because Nelson had about half of his own immediate family members on stage, but because the intimate setting embraced a crowd that was as comfortable with other Willie Nelson fans as they were his music.
The seven member-plus band, complete with an array of various vintage instruments, looked right at home on the tiny revolving circular stage that slowly displayed their musical chops to every corner of the crowd.
Willie's son opened the show around 7:30 pm with his band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, to a packed crowd before Willie took the stage around 8:15.
The brisk pace of the 90-minute concert might have exhausted a performer half his age, but Nelson and company rarely paused between songs except to say, "How are y'all doin'?" or "Thank you very much!" and, at the end, "Have a very merry holiday!"
Wearing his trademark calico pigtail braids and black cowboy hat, Nelson's buttery, whiskey-aged voice belted through the microphone, kicking off the show with favorites like "Whiskey River" and "Beer for my Horses," and preceded to transition smoothly from one jam to the next. One of my favorite moments was the early-on soulful medley featuring "Crazy," a song written by Nelson and made famous by Patsy Cline. During his soulful crooning a woman in the crowd screamed out, "I love you Willie!"
"In this old world of broken dreams," Nelson cooed as he switched from "Crazy" to "Night Life," which has also been covered by Frank Sinatra, B.B. King and Doris Day. He then broke into a rockabilly solo and grinned at the ecstatic crowd.
Bluesy country perfection saturated the air, and even though the sound system needed a few tweakings here and there, the crowd didn't seem to care. They sang around with just about every chorus throughout the evening.
Pianist Bobbie Nelson was a sparkly sight to see, and busted out fast-paced, old-timey piano solos at various breaks throughout the evening. During the first piano solo, about seven songs into the show, Willie took off his cowboy hat and fitted his trusty red bandanna onto his balding head. The bright overhead lighting made Nelson appear even older than in those close-up photos in the last Rolling Stone magazine interview, but his eyes are just as bright, youthful and lively as ever.
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Nelson introduced the entire band, ranging from very young to very seasoned. "This song's about me and Paul!" he announced, before launching into "Me and Paul" and then onto "Help Me Make it Through The Night."
Willie pierced the air with his rapid strumming on is trusty guitar Trigger. It has so much wear and tear from constant years of strumming that it almost looks as if a jaguar got at it; but if you look close enough, you can see that more than 100 of the scratches are signatures here and there of all Nelson's closest friends. Harmonica player Mickey Raphael is so smooth and adept at his craft that it made me want to go home, pull the old harmonica I was gifted as a child out of a drawer, and start a determined lesson of my own. It seemed every band member received their fair share of time in the spotlight.
Other highlights of the performance included "Shoeshine Man"; Django Reinhardt's "Nuages"; "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," originally a duet with Julio Iglesias; the anthem "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys", which got the crowd clapping and hollering; and the Grammy-winning "Always on My Mind."
Nelson and the family ended the concert with the humorous "Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die" and the Hank Williams gospel favorite, "I Saw the Light." Eschewing encores, Nelson instead hung around to sign autographs and shake hands.
Set List: Whiskey River Still Is Still Moving To Me Beer for my Horses Good Hearted Woman Funny How Time Slips Away Crazy Night Life Down Yonder Me and Paul Help me Make it Through the Night Shoeshine Man Hey Good Lookin' Mamas Don't Let Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys Angel Flying Too On The Road Again Always on My Mind Nuages Jambalya Move It On Over Blues Eyes Crying Matchbox City of New Orleans I Been to Georgia South of the Border Have You Ever Seen the Rain Roll Me Up and Smoke Me I Saw the Light
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Critic's Notebook: What: Willie Nelson & Family at Celebrity Theater The Crowd: A mix of Scottsdale cowgirls in hot pink, rhinestone-studded outfits, classic Marlboro cowboys, young tattooed cowboys, more than a few canes and walkers, and even a little five-year-old "cowchild" or two. Personal Bias: I had never seen Willie perform before, but with such a seasoned music veteran, it's no surprise that the performance was easy-going, wonderful and warm. Perfect, and just in time for Christmas. However, it's definitely the type of show to see with another music fan and not alone. Overheard in the Crowd: "I saw Willie more than 30 years ago in Nashville," a woman next to me said to her 10-year-old grandson. "Now you're going to see great music in person for the first time."