Sunday night, under a full moon in New Braunfels at “Texas’ Oldest Dance Hall,” Gruene Hall, Willie Nelson & Family ran through the litany of misadventures in “Me and Paul.” Backbone beat and song subject Paul English behind him, Austin’s oldest country outlaw proved he never has to pen another book. His songs are all the autobiography needed.
Beginning at 8:18pm inside the sold-out shack, capacity in the mere hundreds, Nelson and his sister Bobbie at the piano, plus English and his younger brother Billy on percussion, and local rockabilly Kevin Smith on bass – no Mickey Raphael on harp – the nonstop crew knocked ’em down faster than falling dominoes.
Amidst the singer’s cries of “Let’s do one for Waylon [Jennings],” a twofer offset by a pair of Hank Williams nuggets a few tunes later, the Family mowed down the Willie Nelson songbook in a hail worthy of Machine Gun Kelley with all the grace of George Gershwin. By 9:17pm, they’d performed 20 tunes. A total of 30 selections in 90 minutes melted away the decades.
All the usual Country & Western suspects where there in song, from Toby Keith (“Beer for My Horses”) to Billy Joe Shaver (“Georgia on a Fast Train”), with deep cuts ranging from Tom T. Hall (“Shoeshine Man”) to Carl Perkins (a gentle, moving “Matchbox”). Paula Nelson, who opened the Sunday service, duetted with dad on a sultry cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Paula’s band, onstage for the CCR singalong and an end-run of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and closer “I Saw the Light,” doubled the Family band. Between those latter two tunes, Willie thumped the pulpit.
“Here’s a new gospel song we just wrote,” announced the frontman, twisting up “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” What other musical colossus wrote one of his signature tunes knocking on 80? Ain’t no moss growing on Willie’s braids.
A Kris Kritofferson prayer (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and vintage NOLA appropriation (Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans”) – they’re Willie’s now. And yet, Nelson’s 80 years thrive in his jazzman’s phrasing and instrumental chops via his own standards. On “Funny How Times Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life,” a young man’s melancholy transformed into an old hand’s wisdom.
Tears in the audience (“Always On My Mind”), a miracle on the dancefloor (“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”): you couldn’t help but be humbled. All the while, the bandleader worked over his worn acoustic like the mother of all guitars, chopping classically a la Segovia.
If there’s life after Texas, it’s Willie Nelson.
Set-list, Gruene Hall, 11.17.13
“Whiskey River” “Still is Still Moving to Me” “Beer for My Horses” “Good Hearted Woman” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” “Funny How Times Slips Away” “Crazy” “Night Life” [Bobbie Nelson instrumental] “Me & Paul” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” “Hey, Good Lookin’” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” “On the Road Again” “Always on My Mind” “Georgia on a Fast Train” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” [Missed this one getting a lady a drink] “Phases and Stages (Theme)/Walkin’” “City of New Orleans” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” [Instrumental] “Shoeshine Man” “Matchbox” “South of the Border” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” “I Saw the Light”
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