Willie not at Radio City, photo by Auld Rasmie
Radio City Music Hall
Williemania is awesome. At a sold-out Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, Willie Nelson—two years older and way cooler than John McCain—delivered a show that was equally bro-down, girls night, hippie boogie, and straight-up joy for music heads. Willie entertains them all.
The girls are the loudest. One woman (who kissed Willie at the Bottom Line in ’75, she says) stands and shimmies as a Texas flag unfurls behind the band during the opening “Whiskey River” until she is yelled down by the people a few rows back. “WE LOVE YOU WILLIE!” others shriek between (and sometimes) during songs, often unprovoked. Willie occasionally waves back amiably, looking like a stoned grandmother.
Playing with his absurdly casual quintet, Nelson doesn’t shirk on the favorites. “Crazy” comes out early (shriek!) and “On the Road Again” isn’t too far behind. Willie does standards like “Georgia On My Mind” and “All Of Me,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and a medley of Hank Williams tunes. Then comes the gospel twang: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” into “I’ll Fly Away.”
The band is barely there. One drummer brushes a lone snare, a percussionist taps mildly on some bongoes (and, on “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” turns over a freaking rainstick). As a result, it really is all about Willie. No guitarist (or distortion pedal) covers for him; no vocalist reinforces his voice on choruses. It’s kinda ballsy. Stumbling elegantly between rhythm and lead, his jazzy phrasings are crisp coming off of his obliterated nylon-string acoustic; he even manages a Django Reinhardt number. Norah Jones comes out for a minute, too, after “Crazy.” Nobody seems to recognize her. She sings a few verses, hugs Grandma, and is gone. For the hour-and-forty minute set, Willie Nelson is in charge.
Willie isn’t all things to all people, but that doesn’t mean a bunch of them won’t clap along on drastically wrong beats when they get overexcited. When “On the Road Again” comes around, the clapping buries the song’s rhythm in nearly unlistenable noise. “This is the greatest concert experience of our lives, dude,” one guy in a suit, tie loosened, says to his more casually attired buddy, throwing an arm over his shoulder. And he’s totally right. —Jesse Jarnow