History will judge whether the almost-annual, multi-night runs of Willie Nelson at The Fillmore will rank with Otis Redding's trio of performances there in 1966 or Tom Petty's 20-show residency in 1997. This year, after skipping the storied dance hall in 2008 for a handful of gigs at a couple of local wineries, the 75-year-old legend is back for five packed nights, January 16-20, 2009 (Friday and Saturday are long sold out).
Odds are high that the man himself isn't all that concerned about history because he's too busy living in the present. Last year Nelson played some 150 dates, and he's booked this year for 36 more, and that's just through March. For a pothead senior citizen, Nelson works himself and his touring Family pretty darned hard.
Every show I've seen in the last decade, and no doubt hundreds more before that, have begun with the words "Whiskey River, take my mind," the first line of his 1978 hit. I can't tell you exactly how many times I've seen Nelson open a show like that, but I can tell you that not once has the crowd displayed disappointment. "Still Is Still Moving To Me" usually follows as tune number two, then there's a sing-along titled "Beer For My Horses." At some point in the show, Willie's "little sister" Bobbie will play an instrumental called "Down Yonder," Nelson will sing a medley that includes "Crazy" and, if you're really lucky, you'll hear one of my favorite Nelson covers, "Pancho and Lefty." The evening, which usually lasts a couple of hours, feels familiar and friendly rather than plodding and predictable, giving the assembled crowd of grandmothers, movie stars, Hells Angels and secular squares like me the closest thing most of us are going to get to a morning in church.
It's been a while since Nelson had a warm-up act at The Fillmore; the last musician good enough to handle that potentially thankless task was Norah Jones in 2002. This year he's got Lukas Nelson and The Promise of The Real as his opener. Some years ago, my son Sam and I happened to catch Lukas at a show in Berkeley, where the young guitarist was sitting in with his dad and the Family. Even then we could tell that Lukas had it. In a weird coincidence, Sam and Lukas ended up at the same university, which gave Sam several opportunities to observe the younger Nelson's growing skills as an artist. Word is the kid totally kills, which means this run could be one for the books.
For tickets and information, visit livenation.com.