Willie Nelson may have just turned 77, but the country legend hasn’t slowed his recording or performance schedule. After releasing his latest album Country Music — a lovely collection of country covers produced by T Bone Burnett — Nelson has been hitting up the talk show circuit, including an appearance on Larry King’s show, where the famously pro-marijuana singer admitted to getting stoned before the interview. But Nelson’s spirits peaked last night in New York at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom, where he delivered a stellar set of classic country covers for an intimate audience. Sirius XM will rebroadcast the show on Willie’s Place Saturday, May 15th at 8 p.m. and the following afternoon at 4 p.m.
Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans and backed by a six-piece team of session pros, Nelson delivered a two-and-a-half-hour, 32-song show that featured cuts from Country Music plus other surprise covers of his favorite artists, including Merle Travis, the Louvin Brothers and Kris Kristofferson. While the show kicked off with the set-standard “Whiskey River,” Nelson quickly veered into more obscure choices. For his take on Ernest Tubb’s “Seaman’s Blues,” he sporadically attacked his signature hole-ridden guitar Trigger with a raucous blues solo; his rendition of Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon” took on a Celtic folk-esque vibe.
Nelson was in a chatty mood throughout the show, offering up personal anecdotes about the songs he selected, which gave the performance a relaxed, back-porch feel. Before playing the heartbreaking ballad “Satisfied Mind,” Nelson recalled learning the song from Porter Wagoner. And before dipping into a Billy Joe Shaver’s chugging “You Asked Me To,” Nelson told the audience that Shaver was one of his favorite songwriters of all time. As Rolling Stone reported, Nelson was by Shaver’s side when the latter was found not guilty for shooting a fellow bar patron in the face last month.
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The highlight of the night came during “Drinking Champagne,” a regretful ballad written by old-time country radio host Bill Mack. Nelson told the crowd to pay extra attention to his favorite lyric: “I never loved you much when you were mine,” and sighed, “That’s heavy, man.”
Nelson’s upbeat mood resulted in some surprising, off-the-cuff improvisation. “Georgia on My Mind” segued into Shaver’s similarly titled “Georgia on a Fast Train,” which later erupted into a jam-off with Nelson’s fiddle player Stuart Ducan and mandolinist Chris Thile. The set ended with four Hank Williams songs and a rousing medley of gospel standards like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” before Nelson returned once more for his boozy anthem “I Gotta Get Drunk.”
The crowd, which featured mostly Nelson die-hards, was thrilled to witness Nelson’s raw energy. At one point, Nelson pointed out a woman who was holding up a sign. “It says she was conceived at one of our concerts 30 years ago,” he said. Nelson then paused for a moment before wryly joking, “So have fun out there!”