Just a few days before wrapping up their Last of the Breed tour, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Sixties country star Ray Price played a sold-out gig at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. Seeing these three on one stage (accompanied by backing band Asleep at the Wheel) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the show itself was a master-class in classic country music. Although the audience provided a diverse cross-section of the country music fanbase -- yuppies in suits and pearls, aging hippies in t-shirts and cowboy hats -- by night's end, everyone was moving (and boozing) in unison.
Price kicked things off with the Bob Wills Texas swing classic "San Antonio Rose," then continued with a set that included his 1970 hit "For the Good Times" (perhaps better known as covered by Al Green) and Hank Williams' "A Mansion on the Hill." Price admitted he had been feeling under the weather, but that didn't stop the audience from being stunned that a voice so strong and clear was issuing from the frail eighty-one-year-old.
Next up, Asleep at the Wheel came out to warm up the crowd, and when Merle Haggard ambled on unannounced and grabbed a fiddle to join the party, the room came alive. Haggard went straight into another swing favorite "Take Me Back to Tulsa," switching to his electric guitar a few songs later for a soulful rendition of the Eighties hit "That's The Way Love Goes" that prompted a standing ovation. The crowd leapt to its feet again when the band started up the familiar strains of "Okie From Muskogee," and by the time Nelson made his first appearance of the night -- just in time to join Haggard for the chorus -- it was impossible for anyone to stand still.
The rest of the evening, Nelson and Haggard, along with Price and Freddy Powers, tossed lead vocals back and forth on familiar songs highlighted with instrumental solos and an occasional jam-out. Together, the group focused less on tracks from the new disc Last of the Breed and more on popular hits such as Patsy Cline's "Crazy" (originally written by Nelson) and "On the Road Again." No one seemed to mind.
After the first encore, Nelson returned solo and started up "You Were Always On My Mind" before launching into a couple of new songs -- "Superman" and "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore" (which proved to be the most comedic point in the evening). By the time he got to the raucous "Whisky River" (and donned his infamous bandana), the crowd had loosened ties and inhibitions, dancing and hollering proclamations of love for Nelson, Haggard, and anyone else nearby. Closing with "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," Nelson sent members of the slightly blissed-out audience on their way with a wave and a smile.