It was another awful week for music legends, with the passing of Leonard Cohen on Monday and Leon Russell on Sunday. But for an hour or so on Saturday night, there was comfort and grace to be found in the craggy voice of Willie Nelson, country music's Rock of Gibraltar.
Grinning impishly at age 83 as he tossed headbands to fans, Nelson entertained a capacity crowd at Billy Bob's Texas with the verve of a man who'll probably keep touring until he's 100. He dedicated songs to the late Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, but he didn't dwell on the dearly departed, partly because he was too busy indoctrinating the next generation of Nelsons.
Lukas and Micah Nelson, ages 27 and 26 respectively, performed the whole 75-minute set with their dad and added welcome twists to a show that usually doesn't change much from year to year. The Nelson boys had nothing to prove, per se — they've earned acclaim with their own albums and alongside Neil Young — but Lukas stole the spotlight several times with his speedy guitar solos and his gruff, commanding voice in the blues standard "Texas Flood."
The family affair hit its peak whenever father and sons traded licks in "Jambalaya" or sang sweet harmony in "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die." With Lukas, Micah and Willie offering their own variation on the famous Nelson quaver, they were the three nasal musketeers singing in perfect unison about death, immortality and a well-rolled joint. The only part missing was Amy Nelson, who sang soulfully with her father last year on this very stage.
As good as Lukas was on guitar, he spent most of the show studying his dad's fingers as they danced and slid across the fretboard of Trigger, the battered Martin acoustic guitar that looks every day as old as its owner.
Willie Nelson's rough-hewn guitar style isn't for everyone — he missed almost as many notes as he hit. Yet there was an undeniable beauty in his sloppy improvisation.
"Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" sounded like a head-on collision of Django Reinhardt and Duane Eddy. "Always On My Mind" was the punk-rock version of Andrés Segovia.
Nelson's fine whine continues to slowly diminish. Unable to hit many of the high notes, he half-spoke the lyrics to "Crazy" and "Georgia on My Mind," and relied heavily on the lungs and lips of his longtime harmonica ace Mickey Raphael to keep songs going.
Yet nobody comes to a Willie Nelson concert expecting him to sound exactly like he did in his 1970s heyday. They come to honor the legend, hear the classics, and watch Nelson wave farewell after "I'll Fly Away" — all the while hoping those lyrics don't become reality for many, many years.