Seeing an aging music legend perform live can often be a mixed experience and sometimes even a sobering one, as an elder takes the stage to do his best and ends up showing the audience that old age conquers even the most fiery musical spirits. Punks, shockers and rockers of yesteryear are reduced to coughing fits, playing short sets of obvious classics to satisfy a mostly middle-aged fanbase and go home.
So why is it that Willie Nelson, at the grand old age of 68, complete with limp, paunch and swagger, can take the stage to thunderous applause and manage an exhausting two-and-a-half hour musical journey that spans his entire career, and still stand outside in the cold after the show to greet fifty-odd diehard fans? How is it that after half a century of performing, collaborating with almost everyone who’s anyone in music and releasing yet another stellar album so late in his life, the man hasn’t lost a single step? Because, folks, he’s Willie Nelson, and old age is just another rule for music’s most infamous outlaw to break.
The country legend, Farm Aid founder and pro-legalization marijuana user is still ticking, and he shows absolutely no signs of stopping, if last Saturday’s packed show at the Orpheum Theater is any indication. “As long as folks are still showing up, we’ll keep doing it,” Nelson said recently in an interview with The Boston Phoenix. The idea of retiring is foreign to the man, and the thought of even reducing his demanding 140-show-a-year schedule by one night is ridiculous.
Nelson embodies every inch of his many labels: “outlaw,” “country cowboy,” “pothead,” “genius” and still manages to transcend them, for even playing in front of a demanding, all-ages crowd for several hours at a time just seems like another day at the office. The man loves to play, and play he does — whatever he wants, for as long as he wants and as many times as he wants. “I play the songs I know people come to hear,” Nelson told the Phoenix. “You know — ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,’ ‘On the Road Again,’ ‘Always on My Mind,’ all that stuff. And then I fill out the set with the stuff I feel like playing.”
Saturday night’s marathon country excursion brought the entire house to its feet several times, providing an interesting mix of classics, covers and rarities that spans forty years of Willie Nelson’s musical magic. Old Willie rocked up-tempo quite frequently, playing numbers like “Whiskey River,” “Georgia On My Mind” and “On the Bayou” with a grin on his face and a tap in his foot. He slowed things down, moving with serene beauty through classics like “Always On My Mind” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” He jammed with his band of thirty years, the Willie Nelson Family, looking much more like relaxed old friends playing on a country porch than serious musicians determined to deliver an uptight, unerring concert spectacle. And he pulled more surprises out of his cowboy hat than expected, delivering at one point a series of four Hank Williams covers in a row, a poignant version of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”; a touching, heartwarming take on “The Rainbow Connection” from Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Movie”; and the show-stopping encore, a rousing “Truck Drivin’ Man.” The night was a gathering of country veterans, stoner kids, old ones and young ones, with not a single demographic disappointed.
Willie Nelson stands tall as one of the most important, most interesting and most consistent musicians in American history. No lesser man could make as many decades of timeless music as failed marriages, could tell so many government agencies (including the IRS) where they could stick it, could captivate an audience of any age, and could still be around to reinvent himself over and over. His latest release, The Great Divide (in stores February 5), features guest turns from ten different musicians, from Rob Thomas of matchbox twenty to Brian McKnight and Kid Rock. He’s even marketed his own brand of whiskey, fittingly called Old Whiskey River brand.
Is it the fact that he never takes any guff from anyone, rules and regulations be damned, that his fans are so large in number? Or how about the fact that he’s written some of the most beloved pieces of music in history, which have endured half of a century and found their way into the cover song repertoires of bands of all styles and abilities? Or is it the fact that many points of his political stance — most notably his strong push for the legalization of marijuana — are so vastly appealing that a small but determined faction of repeat concertgoers have begun a serious bid for Willie as the next U.S. president?
Perhaps it is all of these things and none of them at the same time. Despite his image in the public eye, Willie Nelson’s true soul embodies a man content with who he is, where he’s been and where he’s going — a man who just wants to play his music, enjoy himself and give back to his thousands of devoted fans. Perhaps the charm of Willie Nelson and the engine for his non-stop musical machine are best described in a timeless adage that the man himself used in retort to a friend of mine who moved quickly to find an object for the legend to autograph after the show: “You gotta do what you gotta do.”