The temperature was a toasty 80 degrees when Willie Nelson concluded his Friday night performance at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay. But that didn’t stop the 85-year-old American music icon from delivering a thoroughly engaging, full-steam-ahead hour of songs.
True, Nelson at one point removed his sweat-drenched red bandanna from his head and tossed it into the sold-out audience. Happily, though, he never faltered during his 22-song show.
It began with his traditional set-opener, “Whiskey River,” and concluded with a spirited medley of the gospel-music chestnuts “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light,” with harmony vocals from the concert-opening Alison Krauss.
Better yet, Nelson seemed fully engaged and focused throughout his 63-minute performance. By contrast, his 2017 concert at Humphreys was an often listless, decidedly up-and-down affair that saw him coast on automatic pilot for at least half the evening.
On Friday, Nelson clearly wanted to make a statement to his loudly enthusiastic listeners, who greeted him with a standing ovation at the 1,450-capacity venue. (Hundreds more listened from all manner of boats in the adjoining marina.)
His statement did not come in the form of the four-letter word, PALA, that appeared in white capital letters on the front of his black T-shirt. And, no, that’s not an acronym for the yet-to-be-formed Pot Accession Leaders Association, although the marijuana-championing Nelson three years ago launched his Willie’s Brand line of pot products and held an invitation-only promotional event Friday afternoon at the Grand Antique artists collective in Logan Heights.
Rather, his statement was one of musical purpose and tenacity, of reaching deep into songs he has performed countless times and investing them with new emotional resonance.
That he succeeded so well Friday made his concert a triumph. This holds especially true coming on the heels of his Jan. 6 performance here at Harrah’s Resort SoCal ended abruptly within a few minutes, after which the flu-stricken Nelson canceled a string of subsequent concert dates. After getting back on the road again, he ended his May 26 concert in Charlotte, N.C., before playing a single song, later citing a stomach bug as the reason.
So the fact that this legendary Texas troubadour performed with such gusto at Humphreys was all the more impressive, especially on such a sweltering night. Retiring, as Nelson stated in an interview earlier this year with AARP The Magazine, is something he has no intention of doing.
His Friday performance did not include “Crazy” or “Night Life,” but Nelson has written many more classic songs than he can include in a single show. Two of them, “I Never Cared for You” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” were given exquisite readings by Krauss and her seven-piece band during their sublime, 76-minute opening set.
Nelson scored equally well with such tender ballads as “Always On My Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” as he did when romping through Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” and his own “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today.” His oh-so-supple rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” was infused with an elasticity of phrasing more often heard in the work of singular jazz artists, such as trumpet giant Miles Davis (who aptly named a 1970 composition of his “Willie Nelson”).
A guitarist who can run hot and cold, Nelson was in good form Friday, executing fleet lines in his heartfelt interpretation of Django Reinhardt’s smoldering instrumental, “Nuages.” For good measure, Nelson playfully quoted the trademark electric piano line from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” twice during his six-string solos, first during his spry version of Tom T. Hall’s “Shoe Shine Man,” then again during “Move It On Over.”
Nelson was ably backed by a six-piece band that included his sister, Bobbie, on piano, his son, Micah, on percussion, rhythm guitar and backing vocals, and Mickey Raphael on harmonica, who at times seemed to be simultaneously channeling the spirits of Charlie McCoy and Toots Thielemans.
The supremely tasteful opening set by the angelic-voiced Krauss was a master-class in musical excellence, pacing and the art of understatement. Her gorgeous singing on “Ghost in This House” and “Now That I Found You” was expertly matched, note for note, by her ace band, which — like her — soared even when performing at a near-hush.