The old desperado still has plenty of ammo left after all. Sounding robust and rejuvenated, Willie Nelson kicked off his Outlaw Music Festival tour Sunday night at Starplex Pavilion with one of his best Dallas-Fort Worth concerts in years.
If you've seen the 84-year-old legend multiple times in recent years, you know how hit-and-miss he can be. In November at Billy Bob's Texas, his voice sounded drained and his fingers seemed half-frozen as he missed as many guitar notes as he hit. In January and February, he canceled several shows due to upper respiratory problems. In April in New Braunfels, a Dallas Morning News writer wondered if Nelson's puzzling performance might be one of his last.
But on Sunday night in Dallas, Nelson sounded ageless. His sweet, nasal whine was tough and tender during heartbreaking versions of "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" and "Georgia On My Mind." His guitar solos, meanwhile, connected with renewed vigor.
Chalk part of it up to technology. Plugging his battered classical acoustic guitar, Trigger, into an electric-guitar effect, Nelson's playing had more bite than usual. His fingers were especially limber, too, as he burned through jazz, blues and flamenco solos.
Standing in front of a mammoth Texas state flag, Nelson was flanked by his usual top-notch band, including 86-year-old sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, 28-year-old son Lukas Nelson on electric guitar and Dallas harmonica ace Mickey Raphael. Lukas and Raphael traded swinging solos in Tom T. Hall's "Shoeshine Man" while Lukas stole the spotlight in the blues standard "Texas Flood," wailing into the mike and bending his strings like B.B. King.
As the set wound down, opening acts Sheryl Crow, Margo Price and the Avett Brothers sauntered onstage to help Nelson sing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." But his guest stars stole none of his thunder.
Grinning impishly and oozing confidence, Nelson sang "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die" with a twinkle of immortality in his eye.
Crow preceded Nelson with a solid set of hits and tunes from her 10th and latest album, Be Myself. She introduced the new "Halfway There" as a song about last fall's election: "It really brought out the worst in some of us," she said, quickly adding "it's a song about trying to meet in the middle."
Her performance was like that, too — a four-way intersection where rock meets blues, pop and country. Some of the high points arrived during the rockers, like the Stones-y title track to Be Myself. Crow's longtime guitarists Peter Stroud and Audley Freed cranked up oldies like "Can't Cry Anymore" and "Everyday is a Winding Road" with strong improvised jams.
The quieter moments worked well, too. Although Crow has never been a powerhouse singer, her voice has plenty of subtle charm, which she showed off in a twangy version of "Strong Enough" and again in "Midnight Rider," a set-closing tribute to Gregg Allman featuring Lukas Nelson on guitar.
North Carolina's eclectic Avett Brothers, who preceded Crow, turned in some letter-perfect covers as well, including Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." But it was their originals that impressed the most, especially the new gospel-pop singalong "Ain't No Man" and "Vanity," an angelic ballad that suddenly morphed into a Who-like rock overture.
The Avetts often get lumped in the neo-folk category, but there was nothing mellow about their show. Bouncing and strutting and doing the ants-in-my-pants dance, the Avetts were a blur of joyous motion — a punk-rock hoedown fueled by banjo, cello and guitar.