Concert Review: Willie Nelson at Chumash
January 14, 2011
Willie Nelson is one of those rare artists, like Bob Dylan, whose half-century body of work is overwhelming. He’s also someone whose classic songs are often more memorable and popular when recorded by others. And like Dylan, his quirky, offbeat performing style can be hit or miss.
Last week at the Chumash Casino Resort, Nelson’s nearly sold-out 95-minute concert was definitely a big hit.
I saw Willie a few years ago at the Madonna Inn Expo Center and came away disappointed. The song selection was weak and his band’s performance was disjointed and uninspired. Maybe that’s too harsh — after all the country outlaw is pushing 80, leading a traveling band and trying to live up to his larger than life reputation. Still, I was hoping for better on the scenic, hour-long trek down to Santa Ynez.
Billed as Willie Nelson & Family, son Lukas got the night off to a rousing start with a tight 25-minute set of blues-infused country rock. He’s a lead guitarist extraordinaire so the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
After a quick break, out came Willie dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans with a cowboy hat and a battered acoustic that was older than dirt. Immediately jumping into ‘Whiskey River’, Willie focused early on old classics like ‘Crazy’ and the recent honky-tonkish Toby Keith collaboration ‘Beer for My Horses’, hoping to get the mostly older crowd going. But the Samala Showroom vibe on this night was more Vegas lounge than country roadhouse.
I guess that’s what happens when your coke or coffee lacks the booze that otherwise seems prevalent in every Nelson number. Still, the Chumash is a wonderful venue where you can make a whole evening out of it with dinner/drinks at the classy Willows restaurant and various games of chance.
It was clear as the audience sat in rapt if somewhat quiet attention that Willie is a modern day icon who probably crosses more musical genres than any singer. Who else can pull off a 3-song tribute to Hank Williams, a smooth rendition of the classic ‘Georgia on My Mind’ and a rousing ‘City of New Orleans’, made famous by Arlo Guthrie? Even so, Willie willingly shared the spotlight with Lukas and his longtime band, also featuring sister Bonnie on a massive piano that probably needed its own truck.
Nelson performed in a playful mood for most of the night, trading in hat for his trademark bandanas that he tossed into the crowd several times. He implored everyone to sing along on many selections but as the big screens panning the audience showed, he didn’t get too many takers.
Mixing in new songs that poked fun at his age and proclivity for smokable botanicals with old staples like ‘Always on My Mind’, ‘On the Road Again’, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’, ‘Good Hearted Woman’ and the venerable ‘Mammas Don’t Let…(you get the idea). Willie kept the crowd eager for what might come next. After decades of material, mostly covers from various songwriting legends, he has quite a grab bag to choose from. It’s gotta be tough for any performer to keep it fresh, especially one like Nelson who circles the states performing hundreds of shows year after year. But the roadshow veteran seems to revel in the musical journey his live shows take him, and his fans, on.
Definitely add Willie to your bucket list the next time he comes around.