At this point, attending a Willie Nelson concert is musical comfort food. You know what you're gonna get. You know you're going to like it. And even if it's nothing new or exciting, you know it will be one of the best nights of your week.
So it was Friday night, as Nelson and his "family" band closed down the Red Butte Garden summer concert season with a performance almost hot enough to stave off the bitter chill that crept in by the end of the night.
His hair noticably shorter than his last visit to Utah, Nelson still wore his iconic bandanna under his cowboy hat, still had his red, white and blue guitar strap holding up his nylon-stringed acoustic, Trigger, and still proved capable of leading his crew through about 40 tunes in just more than 90 minutes.
The impressive part of what Nelson does isn't his endurance, though, or even the unbelievably huge catalog of classics to his name from which he draws that lengthy set list. No, it's his jazz-inspired approach to playing Trigger, deconstructing those familiar hits a bit to pick out a slightly askew melody, or to emphasize different aspects of songs you've heard a million times. He doesn't completely throw off his fans with completely new arrangements, ala Bob Dylan, but Nelson always finds new ways to explore his songs that you haven't heard before.
Early on, Willie and his band including sister Bobbie Nelson pounding out honky-tonk piano and harmonica man extraordinaire Mickey Raphael seemed a little rushed and discombobulated through frantic openers "Whiskey River," "Still is Still Moving" and the singalong of "Beer for My Horses." But the band quickly settled into a groove, specifically the one provided by drummer Paul English, and settled down to exploring Nelson's classics in a more relaxed fashion.
"Funny How Time Slips Away" was an early highlight, and "Crazy" featured Nelson best early guitar work. Raphael's harmonica was the best part of "Georgia on My Mind." "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" into "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" into "On the Road Again" made for a potent combination about mid-show. And Nelson's homage to Hank Williams, via back-to-back covers of "Jambalaya" and "Move It On Over," was not only fun to hear, but a poignant reminder that living legends like Nelson have heroes, too.