Friday, July 5, 2013
Concert review: With a devil-may-care attitude, Willie Nelson played sloppy set at annual Fourth of July picnic
Willie was joined by country greats and outlaws-in-training.
FORT WORTH Willie Nelson is the world’s hippest octogenarian, a founding father of outlaw country, and a true Texas treasure. But he also messes up now and again just like the rest of us mortals.
Headlining his own 4th of July Picnic Thursday night outside Billy Bob’s, Nelson repeatedly struggled to find his groove during a 90-minute show that won’t go down as one of the more notable gigs in the event’s 40-year history.
The problem wasn’t Nelson’s sweet vinegar whine, which was in perfect form, nor was it his veteran band, which was tighter than a mouse’s ear. Nelson’s nemesis was Trigger, his trusty and battered old acoustic guitar which acts as the lead instrument in his band.
Nelson can be one of country’s boldest guitarists by mixing flamenco and jazz into improvised solos that recall his idol Django Reinhardt. And at times Thursday, he was magical: During “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” Nelson conjured up 1930s Paris on his guitar as a fireworks finale exploded behind him.
But much of his strumming and soloing was unusually sloppy -- even by Nelson’s devil-may-care standards. His trademark behind-the-beat playing lagged so far behind that several songs sounded aimless, especially the show-opening “Whiskey River.”
Thankfully, his piano-playing sister Bobbie Nelson and harmonica player Mickey Raphael helped right the ship with their usual dazzling solos. And Nelson did a fine job of cherry picking tunes from across his discography, from “Crazy” to “South of the Border” to his new classic “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – a directive his loyal stoner fans would be more than happy to oblige one day.
The daylong concert featured a slew of Nelson’s old outlaw pals, including Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, and Leon Russell. There were also young outlaws-in-training, like Justin Moore, who told fans that Waylon and Willie helped inspire his comic song about kicking an obnoxious dude’s rump.
The coveted pre-Willie time slot went to Gary Allan, one of country’s top male singers in last 15 years. At first glance, Allan seemed a bit too sparkly for Willie’s Picnic: From a distance, he could pass for Deacon from the prime time soap opera Nashville.
But Allan’s broad, raspy voice and his expert feel for the blues shined through in confessional tunes like the new song “It Ain’t The Whiskey.” Allan may not be an outlaw, but he’s as close to a desperado as you’ll find at the top of the pop charts.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic.
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