Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
hen it comes to a Willie Nelson show, a few things are set in stone before the first notes are even sounded. First, the show is required to start with "Whiskey River."
Normally, a supple, fast-paced affair, a somewhat inert reading did not foreshadow what was to come over the next 80 minutes.
Second, Nelson may be 83, but he picked and sang his way through a bunch of well-worn chestnuts with easy with other worthy songs in the mix.
That means a set-in-stone list including Waylon Jennings' "Good Hearted Woman," "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," "Angel Flying too Close to the Ground," "On the Road Again," "Always On My Mind" and a bunch more.
About the only particularly recent song was "It's All Going to Pot," a song Nelson did with the late Merle Haggard on their 2015 disc together.
Songs aside was the performance quotient. Nelson would never be accused of mailing in a performance. As long as he has his beat-up, worn out, but still highly playable guitar, Trigger, at his side, all's good even if the guitar with its trademark large hole in it seems ready for retirement.
Nelson tended to have a mind of his own when it came to playing and singing. He picked away, sometimes jazzy or bluesy, often ferociously, but seemingly always with purpose.
And his voice has changed little over the years. He may have a grizzled look about him facially, but not so his voice. His reading of "Always on My Mind" was stellar. Comfortable with a variety of styles, Nelson altered tempos and styles with ease, forcing his band to do their thing. Harp player Mickey Raphael remained a solid force in Nelson's band.
Nelson was never one to particularly pay attention to his new material. The fact his Ray Price tribute "For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price" drops on Friday didn't seem to matter. He played "Night Life" as part of a medley of "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Crazy," but he also wrote "Night Life" and has performed it for years.
So there's not a whole lot new under the sun at a Willie Nelson concert. Yes, this was another meat-and-potatoes Willie show. You pretty much know the score before you set foot in the venue. And, fortunately, that still includes an aging star who showed little sign of aging from singing to his idiosyncratic playing. Nelson remains an American treasure.
Opening act Aaron Lewis made it clear where he stood politically - let's say he's exceedingly pro-U.S. - from the get go. The Massachusetts resident asked the crowd to stand up and remove their hats before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, it was show time with his biggest song, "Country Boy."
Lewis may wear his views on his sleeve, but he sure was good at doing so. An unabashed conservative, he scored on such songs as "Granddaddy's Gun" and "Red, White and Blue."
While Lewis obviously was entitled to his viewpoints, far more important was what he brought the musical table. And that was a lot with a new disc, "Sinner," his first in four years coming out Friday.
Lewis played about a half dozen songs from the strong album, including the title track. While it featured Nelson on the recorded version, the crowd was left with Raphael blowing harp. While it would have been nice to hear Nelson too, Lewis more than carried his own tunes with his very full-sounding voice.
He has an understated confidence, exuding conviction. He also is a keen songwriter, with such songs as "Northern Redneck" from "Sinner," where he upended the typical country music convention that if it's country, it's got to be southern. Not in Lewis' world.
Given a healthy hour as the opening act, Lewis made the most it. You got to salute that.