July 14th, 2012, 4:26 pm · · posted by BEN WENER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
What a wonderful way to kick off Pacific Amphitheatre’s five-week 2012 season alongside the annual OC Fair, with an appropriately rustic 90-minute set Friday night from a genuine American legend, Willie Nelson.
There’s no need to expound upon his virtues once more; we already know the Red Headed Stranger is as peerless as legends come. Like Bob Dylan and B.B. King, he seems determined to never retire, to keep touring until family and friends are singing his epitaph tune “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” while doing that very thing. So what matters is not a recounting of his greatness but how he’s holding up now.
And again, he’s peerless. Even the best icons in their 60s have trouble maintaining such a level of high-quality entertainment. Nelson is roughly nine months shy of his 80th birthday and still delivering consistently satisfying shows – something that can’t be said of Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis anymore. Only the Ambassador of the Blues is further on in life yet providing reliably first-rate music for your money.
His style is a lot like King’s, too – he strums and riffs one of those magnificently road-scarred acoustic guitars of his only between lyrics, never over them, sharing the emphasis between clever words and sly six-string asides. Nelson not only sounds as unmistakable as ever – gratefully devoid of the vocal laziness that takes hold with so many elders and pioneers – but he packs a lot into an hour and a half without ever giving the impression he’s rushing through tunes so he can get back to the tour bus for another blunt.
More than two dozen songs in all, actually, plus spotlights for both his sister Bobbi on piano (“Down Yonder”) and son Lukas on guitar (who served up tastefully stinging solos all night, though his take on “Texas Flood” was far and away a highlight).
Like anyone even half his age, Willie needed a song or two to get warmed up: standard opener “Whiskey River” found him fighting against the band’s tempo too much, his instrument initially cranked too loud, his playing eccentric, borderline clumsy. Five songs later, however, he hit his stride with “Good Hearted Woman” (“let’s do one for Waylon!”) and his usual medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away” > “Crazy” > “Night Life.” From then on out, his guitar licks grew increasingly engaging, lyrical, even moving, most riveting during a bittersweet reading of “Always on My Mind,” his rueful vocal delivery almost Dylanesque.
And that was only halfway into his show. Along the way he also got laughs with punchy songs he penned decades ago (the outlaw’s lament “Me and Paul,” the wicked music-biz kiss-off “Write Your Own Song”) and more recently while recuperating from carpal tunnel surgery, sweetly self-deprecating songs like “I Ain’t Superman” and “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore.” (“I used to fall down and fake a heart attack on the floor,” he sings in the latter, “but even I don’t think that’s funny anymore.”)
“On the Road Again” brought out the good ol’ boys, just as “Me and Paul” seemed to inspire the weed-tokers (my section certainly got lit up). A trio of Hank Williams favorites – “Jambalaya” > “Hey Good Lookin’” > “Move It on Over” – made for as much crowd-engaging fun as singalongs like the Toby Keith duet “Beer for My Horses” (very early in the set) and the Steve Goodman classic “City of New Orleans” (much later). He also snuck in a couple ditties, like Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and his own “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” that I don’t recall hearing him do at other spots in recent years.
But the most memorable moment, for me, was hearing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” stripped of its schmaltz, cast instead with a duskiness that made it feel like ol’ Willie was ruminating over long-ago paramours after knocking back shots in some Southwest saloon. It helps, of course, that his backing band nails that laid-back feel, with rich bass and the brushing and tapping of a single snare drum forming a subtle foundation for soloists like Lukas Nelson and Willie’s longtime mouth harp man Mickey Raphael.
It was virtually the same Willie Nelson show that one of our greatest living legends puts on everywhere he goes, and I’ve seen him do so in locations big (Coachella/Stagecoach) and small (Club Nokia). For some ineffable reason, this one had a little something extra.
I attribute it to those unmistakable Pacific crowds, a mix of the same constant talkers you find at Verizon all summer long combined with infrequent concert-goers out for an annual summer thrill and hard-core fans, who seem to root for outstanding performances here with greater enthusiasm than elsewhere in Southern California. They can annoy the hell out of you one moment, lift your excitement level the next – and Friday night they were hot for it, cheering on Willie every step of the way, earning those bandana tosses to the front rows, and nearly filling the venue’s furthest corners. A very fine start to the season indeed.
Next at Pacific: The Happy Together Tour featuring Flo & Eddie of the Turtles, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees and more, July 14, $17.50-$37.50 … Matisyahu with Katchafire, July 15, $19.75-$39.75 … Scotty McCreery with Attwater, July 18, $22.50-$52.50 … Adam Lambert, July 19, $29.50-$59.50 … Bachman & Turner with Foghat, July 20, $19.50-$39.50.
Setlist: Willie Nelson & Family at Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa, July 13, 2012
Whiskey River / Still Is Still Moving to Me / Beer for My Horses / Shoeshine Man / Good Hearted Woman / Medley: Funny How Time Slips Away > Crazy > Night Life / Down Yonder (Bobbi Nelson piano solo) / Me and Paul / Texas Flood (Lukas Nelson spotlight) / Mamas 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 / Jambalaya / Hey Good Lookin’ > Move It on Over / (Instrumental) / You Asked Me To / Georgia on My Mind / Matchbox / I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train / City of New Orleans / To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before / I Ain’t Superman / You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore / Write Your Own Song / Will the Circle Be Unbroken? / Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die / I Saw the Light
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