Willie Nelson at Mystic Lake Casino, 10/29/10


Willie Nelson

October 29, 2010

Mystic Lake Casino

Seeing Willie Nelson, whether it's your first time or your tenth, whether you've followed his career for fifty years or five, is like seeing an old friend. As folks assembled outside his Friday night sold-out appearance at Mystic Lake Casino (a sold-out Saturday night show to follow), everyone, young and old, was buzzing about "Willie." Just "Willie." To everyone, he's just Willie. He feels like an old friend.

[jump] For me, my earliest memories of Willie were of hearing my grandmother complain about his warbly voice and eventually about his tax problems - she liked to gossip about country music stars. Of attending a community fair with my cousin, strapping red bandannas on our heads and working up the nerve to sing "On the Road Again" at karaoke, the only song on the list we knew. Of thinking my uncle Jimmy Joe was Willie, because he sported a long braid and had a diminutive stature. Since Willie Nelson was the only other guy I knew who braided his hair, Jimmy Joe must'a been Willie, or vice versa. By the same logic, James Sr., my grandfather, was George Burns - or George Burns was him, whatever.

As Willie walked onstage Friday night, sporting short (for him) locks, a long black jacket which he quickly shed, a red, white and blue guitar strap, and, of course, his signature sneakers, the house stood up and everyone clapped enthusiastically, as if giving a hero's welcome to a long-gone friend. Willie waved, picked up his beat-up acoustic guitar, Trigger, and behind him, a giant Texas flag unfurled.


For the next two hours, Willie and his band - a small one on this night consisting of a bassist, harmonica player, drummer on snare only, and his little sister Bobbie on grand piano - played an energetic and engaging set consisting of his old hits, old hits by others, and a handful of newer songs. To put it this way - by the time they wrapped up their performance around 10 P.M., I was thinking they'd only been playing less than an hour, wanted to cry out for more, checked my watch then thought, yep, two hours, that's 'bout right. My deficient attention span rarely allows for that to happen.

Photos by Steve Cohen
As in every live performance I've heard him play, and like a poet choosing whatever cadence strikes him in the moment, Willie has the most unconventional style of singing and guitar playing. As legend tells it, some Nashville bigwig back in the day scoffed at Willie's style: "That ain't singin', that's talkin'." Sure, maybe. But whatever he's doin' be it singin' at me, or talkin' at me, or talksingin' at me, I like it. And as always, his band provides the solid structure allowing him to weave in and out at will, a performing style much more characteristic of jazz than country. Makes sense, then, that Willie so often and so easily blends other genres with his country.

And the best part about seeing Willie Nelson? He's never gonna sound like that recording of that song you've grown to know, whether it's his song or one someone else has made famous. And he'll definitely never sound the same as the last time you saw him, or the next. I don't know how he does it - the man's nearing 80, you'd think he'd finally be set in some sort of way - but it's as if from moment to moment something new still strikes him, and he goes with it. The result? The audience feels a real connection to him as a performer. You're never gonna accuse Willie Nelson of phoning it in. And it sure as hell means you ought never, ever miss one of his performances, each one as unique as the newest scratch dent or hole he's put in that old guitar.

Critic's bias: Willie's not my favorite person to listen to on record, yet by a country mile is my favorite to hear live or in collaboration with other people. That seems to be where he shines.

The crowd: Ranged from younger'n me to older'n Willie. The two things they had in common? 1. They all likely just ate at the Mystic Buffet (and as well they should; you can line up prime rib, and mac & cheese, and stuffing, and fried catfish, and egg rolls, all on one plate). 2. If Willie had joined them at their table at the Mystic Buffet, they probably would've been pleased as punch but wouldn't have thought it was all that different than having a favorite uncle over for dinner.

Overheard in the crowd: WE LOVE YOU WILLIE! (Duh.)

Random notebook dump: Willie has long worn sneakers, not fancy cowboy boots. Now, that's outlaw country to the nth.

For more photos: See our full slideshow by Steve Cohen.

Set List:

Whiskey River

Still Is Still Moving to Me

Beer for my Horses

Shoeshine Man

Funny How Time Slips Away


Night Life


Down Yonder

Help Me Make It Through the Night

Me and Bobby McGee

Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain

Good Hearted Woman

Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground

On the Road Again

Always on My Mind


Will the Circle Be Unbroken

I'll Fly Away



Hey Good Lookin'

Move It On Over

Georgia On My Mind



You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore

Healing Hands of Time

City of New Orleans

Nobody's Fault But Mine

Rainy Day Blues

I Never Cared For You

So Lonesome I Could Cry

I Saw the Light

Encore: None. His band played "I Saw the Light" on repeat while Willie bent over the stage to sign autographs and dole out handshakes and kisses. He was remarkably generous in doing so for as long as he did. I don't think Willie's for real. Every time I see him, I don't think he could be for real. Willie - I salute you.