The stuff of legends

Monday, October 24, 2005
Willie Nelson brought his country outlaw image to the Show Me Center Sunday night. (Fred Lynch)

I remember having a strong feeling of dread when Willie Nelson first took the stage Sunday night.

I had just witnessed a large man spend several minutes peddling Willie merchandise and talking about how great the musician was, using several descriptions such as "the Walt Whitman of our times." It's always been my experience that when a performer resorts to selling himself so strongly and openly, he's usually washed up.

Then Willie came out and showed me why he's a champion still in his prime. He's far from washed up. His fans' adoration, his own overwhelming charisma and the quality of his songwriting gave credence to the title "living legend."

When the first notes of "Whiskey River" rang out and that huge Texas flag unfurled behind the man and his musical Family, the Show Me Center was electric. All the hippies, hipsters, cowboys, cowgirls and middle-class families were together in their excitement, ready to see the legend.

They had already been pumped up nicely by the opening act, John Hand, a performer in the true traditional Texas saloon style with the face of Johnny Cash (at least from row M) and the look of Hank Sr. But they were in for a real treat.

Nelson proceeded to whip out some of the most seamless and intriguing improv licks on guitar, while harmonica player Mickey Raphael let loose machine-gun blasts of color. Willie has long been praised for the way he's able to incorporate jazz's improv style, rhythms, structure and guitar chording into a country music framework. Seeing that ingenuity live was amazing.

Syncopated and fluid guitar rhythms and leads spoke of the days of the early jazz guitarists, and the faster Nelson tunes showed clear links between his Texas swing style and swing jazz itself.

One of the early musical highlights was "Funny How Time Slips Away." The song was a lush lullaby full of musical flavor, accented by Willie's fluid picking and the soft colored light bathing the arena. For an extra treat, Nelson and Family went straight from "Time Slips Away" into "Crazy."

Demonstrating diversity

The Nelson-written song, made famous by the great Patsy Cline, became a brand new tune in the hands of its creator. Then throughout the night Willie showed his diversity and comprehension of numerous styles of music -- like raunchy blues jams, saloon piano romps and driving rock -- in a performance as fresh as any I've seen.

Very few performers can boast that their live show makes hippies dance in the aisles and country folk scream at the top of their lungs. One of them is Willie Nelson, and he deserves to be called a legend.

If Cape Girardeau sees another performer of this caliber any time soon, it will be a surprise to me.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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