You’re marinating in the pre-Willie lobby of the Granada Theater. It’s buzzing with giddy anticipation. Old men, old women, young men and young women beam as they swap autobiographical Willie stories: how many times they’ve seen him live, how far they drove to get here. It hits you over the head that you haven’t seen a group of strangers this united since ... actually you can’t remember the last time you saw strangers interact with this much camaraderie. Stifle that single tear you feel forming. Fine tune the ability to control yourself, you sentimental sap. You’ll need it tonight.
If you were able to buy tickets to Willie Nelson’s Tuesday or Wednesday shows at the Granada Theater, you are luckier than the 99 percent of people who desperately wished they could have shelled out $125 a pop for tickets. When they went on sale in November, they sold out immediately. Conspiracy theories began circulating. One had to be either a first degree relative of Willie’s or a unicorn to get into one of these shows.
As mortal humans, we are ill-equipped to “review” (in the true sense of the word) anything Willie Hugh Nelson performs, writes, eats or inhales. It’s the same reason we are not in the position to critique puppies, for example, or messiahs: We are not the same things. We are fallible; they are infallible. Anything resembling criticism of this category of specimen should come with a mandatory wink-and-nod asterisk acknowledging our unworthiness.
That said, Willie Nelson is old as hell. He’s been old as hell for decades. When you get to be his age (he turns 84 in April), it shows. Especially when you’ve lived as hard and fast and stoned as he has. His body is weathered and wrinkled. His voice doesn’t sound like it used to.
Willie Nelson: The Octogenerian Live Performer typically spurs the following criticisms:
He is slower to move around the stage.*
He takes frequent breaks.*
And, in general, he just ain’t hitting them high notes like he used to.*
*For God’s sake, he’s 83 years old.
Without arguing the validity of those assertions, let it be known: Last night Willie Nelson proved he can still play a damn good show.
The two stars of last night’s show were Willie, of course, and the pristine, crowning glory of Dallas music venues, the 1,000-capacity Granada Theater. The word “intimate” was used ad nauseam in marketing and promotional materials. It wasn’t false advertising, folks. Willie’s fans last night were packed so tightly into the art deco landmark that they seemed to think little of accidentally rounding second base with strangers to get a better glimpse/photo of the Red-Headed Stranger.
The opening act, a trio named Runaway June, took the stage around 8 p.m. Runaway June, for the uninitiated, is like if the early Dixie Chicks had balayage. They sounded mellifluous and radio-ready though perhaps a bit rushed.
Willie and his band emerged on the stage right at 9 p.m, Willie grinning impishly and waving at the crowd. To the surprise of no one, he and his band (joined by sons Lukas and Micah Nelson and longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael) kicked things off with a raucous rendition of “Whiskey River.” Predictably, he donned his staple concert attire of black jeans, a black cowboy hat and a black T-shirt. People standing particularly close to the stage may have noticed the state of Hawaii emblazoned across the back of his shirt. As is routine, he later ditched the hat, hurling it Frisbee-style into the audience and replacing it with an obligatory red bandana. People love the red bandana.
From there, he began cranking out one familiar song one after another, unfurling mainstays like Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Later on came “Blue Eyes Cryin,’” “Always On My Mind” and “On the Road Again.” During the latter two, he picked up a second wind and hit those iffy notes the way he did when the IRS was still after him.
Several times throughout the evening, he called on the audience to sing the tag line, a move he’d prompt by cuing the house lights to flicker. Or maybe it was telepathy.
During “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” several people obliged the request prematurely. Rumor has it this is not uncommon at Willie’s shows.
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It was a rapid fire set short on small talk and heavy on guitar riffs. His sons Lukas and Micah, ages 27 and 26 respectively, joined their dad for most of the 80-minute set. They’re already accomplished in their own rights, having released solo albums and a collaboration with Neil Young. Lukas added some new blood into the lineup with “Texas Flood,” a bluesy standard he sang. Willie’s 86-year-old sister, Bobbie Nelson, was a powerhouse on the piano and played a few standout solo moments herself.
Willie played the songs he’s played thousands of times before, usually to venues five times the size of the Granada. If you were there last night, he could — by definition — reasonably spit on you. That’s a beautiful thing.
After he and his bandmates said goodnight, Willie signed a few autographs and disappeared behind the curtain. A few hundred people stuck around, anticipating (or hoping) for an encore. That crowd dwindled to a few dozen and got even sparser until people realized that, no, Willie would not be coming back out. Finally, a woman walked right up to the stage and begged the last remaining person onstage, a sound engineer, if Willie could please, please sign her poster. The man shook his head regretfully and said, “He’s gone, darlin’. He’s gone.”
Willie Nelson plays a second show tonight, Wednesday, Jan. 4, at Granada Theater, 3524 Greenville Ave. Tickets, $125, are sold out.