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Willie Nelson performed a set of his vintage songs before a nearly sold-out audience.
DANIEL LIN | Special to The Roanoke Times
Willie Nelson performs in the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre on Friday.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Willie Nelson wrote “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away,” among the greatest country songs of all time.
Nelson played that song early in a 90-minute set Friday night at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre, and it served as an apparent platform for everything he stands for musically.
His melodies are timeless, but when he sang, he avoided them almost entirely, instead improvising vocal lines that landed far ahead of where one might expect them. That seemed to leave him more space to respond to the vocal lines with equally adventurous guitar licks.
His solo, played with conviction on his battered old guitar, was equal parts blues, swing, gypsy jazz and rock. And melodically, it paved the way for his next number, “Crazy,” another of the greatest country songs of all time.
Nelson has written dozens of them over the decades, and he led his band — including sister Bobbie Nelson, son Lukas Nelson and longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael — through many of them with barely a second of silence in between.
The crowd, nearly at capacity in the 2,200-seat auditorium, responded with wild applause and shouted encouragement. He repaid them at the end by signing tickets, albums, headbands, CDs and more as the band played instrumental chorus after chorus of the set-closing gospel standard, “I Saw the Light.”
Nelson turned 80 in April, but he still stood straight and strong, delivering inimitable guitar lines between reedy vocal bursts — always an improvisational force, playing to an inscrutable groove in his head.
His backing band has honed in more closely than ever on Nelson’s rhythmic eccentricities, and was locked in well. Recent addition Kevin Smith, on upright bass, sounded great, though his presence was a reminder that Nelson’s longtime bassist, Dee Spears, died in 2011.
But there was no melancholy in this performance. Opening number “Whiskey River” set the rollicking tone, followed by the much newer “Still is Still Moving to Me” and “Beer for My Horses.”
Soon, Nelson led the band through the long medley that started with “Ain’t It Funny …” and closed with “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” an Ed Bruce song that he and the late Waylon Jennings had covered.
Lukas Nelson got the spotlight on “Texas Flood,” a Larry Davis blues song that Stevie Ray Vaughan made famous. The younger Nelson a few years back showed more of the Vaughan influence than he did Friday night.
Both his playing and singing have matured, and his recent association with Bob Weir seems to have seasoned him, as well. Vocally, he still sounds remarkably like his father, and in his short opening set that fact was in full evidence. But with his father, he simply provided quiet and spooky-close harmonies.
As Nelson stood with the crowd at the end, smiling and signing, it was hard not to think how rare a piece of living history he is. But he appears good to go for a good while longer.
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