Last Night: Willie Nelson at Broward Center

Willie Nelson
Broward Center
February 7, 2012

There is a trustworthy and relaxed quality to the experience of seeing a performer who clearly has nothing to prove, one who is simply and delightedly doing his thing. It's rare in this world, but that's what you get when you see Willie Nelson. 

That's also why the Broward Center was full last night and why folks with fake tans and yachts parked outside were clapping in unison with the bleary-eyed stoners who were peppered throughout the crowd as the night coalesced into a show-ending gospel sing-along.

The journey toward this uplifting finale was guided in country-Jedi fashion by Willie. The Yoda of popular music led his band through a long string of songs, calling them out on the spot and delivering them with lots of heart. Willie's singing and playing was soulful, light, and in the moment. He performed with confidence arrived at from decades on the stage and a sense of enjoyment and humility that suggests there is some deep quality about his experience that keeps him coming back.

Though aged 78 years, in the midst of song, he is childlike and playful. It's as if the weight of the years dissolved into the air along with the sounds from his trusty old guitar and his sweet, tender voice. As he stood at the front of the stage, doing what he's done for more than half a century, he was surrounded not only by adoring fans, lights, a giant Texas flag backdrop, and what's left of the Family Band but also by the absence of a few dear companions who have comprised that close-knit unit for so long.

This past December, the Family Band lost its bassist of 40 years, Dan "Bee" Spears, when he died from apparent exposure after falling out of his motor home. This came just a few months after Jody Payne, who'd flanked Willie on rhythm guitar since the early '70s, announced his retirement. For most of the show, Paul English, who first jammed with Willie in the mid-'50s and who suffered a minor stroke in 2010, was not on stage, though he did come out for the staple "Funny How Time Slips Away>Crazy>Night Life" medley and the following "Me and Paul," a tribute Nelson wrote almost 30 years ago to their already adventurous time together as friends.

All of this loss that has happened around Willie in recent years seems to have only made him a stronger and more grounded artist. After doing this for so long, achieving all that he has, and constantly being reminded of aging and the passing of time, it seems that he plays and sings each note with the attitude that doing so is all that really matters and that the opportunity to do so is a blessing.

From the opening incantation, "Whiskey River, take my mind," through the countless little shared moments -- some tradition, part of the ritual, like singing, "Well hello there, my it's been a long, long, time" as he opens "Funny How Time Slips Away" -- through to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" a Willie Nelson show is sacred in its own way. This doesn't seem to be lost on Willie and the Family Band. We can only hope that all who attend his shows are able to be touched by this, to some degree, as well. 

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I was really excited to watch the show with my mom and brother. The character, the music, the vibe of Willie has always had a special place within our family and as part my life as a musician. The first music I remember hearing was Willie's Greatest Hits, which was always in heavy rotation on Dad's turntable (I have that same vinyl now). 

For my first concert, Mom and Dad took me to see Willie when I was 5. By that time, I had already established myself as a Willie Nelson tribute act at family gatherings -- cowboy hat, toy guitar, and a deep repertoire (for a 5-year-old).

There was probably a better chance of Willie giving an anti-pot lecture than of him getting a negative review here, which I think is legit. If you don't like a Willie Nelson show, it's probably your own fault.

The crowd: More fake tans than cowboy boots.

Random detail: Outside, before the show, Mickey Raphael, the subject of a recent New Times story, casually chatted with fans. He is a very cool cat.

Set list:

"Whiskey River"
"Still Is Still Moving to Me"
"Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses"
"Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy," "Night Life" (medley)
"Down Yonder"
"Me and Paul"
"Help Me Make It Through the Night"
"Me and Bobby McGee"
"Good Hearted Woman"
"Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground"
"On the Road Again"
"Always on My Mind"
"Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"
"Jambalaya (on the Bayou)"
"Hey Good Lookin'"
"Move It On Over"
"You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore"
"I Never Cared for You"
"Somebody Pick Up My Pieces"
"Permanently Lonely"
"You Ask Me To"
"Georgia on My Mind"
"To All the Girls I've Loved Before"
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"
"Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die"
"I Saw the Light"

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Travis Newbill