May 4th, 2017
The line of people outside the tour bus parked on the corner of Fillmore and Geary was thick. Thick with people holding pictures, guitars, album covers, and magazines….thick with marijuana smoke. All hoping to get a glimpse of their hero, or to get some piece of memorabilia signed, or get a handshake from none other than the legendary Willie Nelson.
As the door to the bus opened, a few handlers emerged first to clear a path, then suddenly Willie appeared wearing a cowboy hat with a hand raised to the crowd….chaos ensued, though respectfully so.
Willie slowly pushed through the crowd, pausing to sign a guitar and an album cover. He shook and slapped hands with adult fans who were suddenly transformed into giggling kids.
I somehow got to be part of this procession, following the footsteps of an 84-year old legend as he made his way into the equally renowned Fillmore where he was about to hold court for a 75-minute set of country/blues classics. There was an air of reverence from everyone he passed as he made his way directly from his bus to the stage where his band (the Family) was already waiting in front of a backdrop of a large flag of Texas
A rousing round of applause greeted Willie as he approached the mic wearing his guitar. He began by throwing everyone into ‘Whiskey River’. The crowd suddenly started to sway with hats being raised high in salute and lots of whooping and hollering.
Nelson played the only guitar in the band and it was very present, almost overwhelming in the mix initially. It took a short bit for the sound mix to stabilize but it was great to hear his rambling country/blues leads cutting over the top and intermixed with the soft spoken vocal delivery that he imparts. By the time he counted his fantastic band into ‘Still is Still Moving to Me,’ the mix was dialed.
Like all fabulous storytellers, Willie kept his fans rapt with his every word. He rolled out the boisterous call and response of ‘Beer for My Horses,’ with the crowd chanting the song title on cue every time Willie called out “Whiskey for my men…”
At this point the evening turned into a beer soaked hootenanny. Willie graciously thanked the crowd and quietly announced “Now let’s rock a little…” He then kicked off ‘Good Hearted Woman,’ the song he wrote with Waylon Jennings that was inspired by Ike and Tina Turner. When the dynamics of the song kicked up, Nelson did indeed start to rock. Strolling the stage as he played while the Family pushed the heavily snare driven beat to a locomotive shuffle.
The highlights of the show then came fast and furious as the set continued. ‘Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ was a rousing singalong that had everyone in the house, 20-something hipsters to 70-something diehards, all joining in. ‘On The Road Again’ had folks doing the two-step prompting strangers to become friends.
There were cover songs sprinkled through the set. Whether it was Brenda Lee’s ‘Always On My Mind’ or Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Georgia On My Mind,’ the only thing on the minds of those in attendance was the fact that they were enjoying an evening of music played by the legend Willie Nelson himself.
As if to emphasize this point, Willie and Family cranked out the crowd favorite ‘Still Not Dead’ and toward the end of the set punctuated the night with ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.’ The latter prompting joints and vape pens to be brandished and put to use, prompting Willie to flash his familiar warm smile and the quiet comment “…smells good in here.”
The family affair was not restricted to Willie and the Family (which includes his sister Bobbie on piano). Opening the night were the terrific Insects vs. Robots. Insects vs. Robots (IVR) is a quintet form Venice Beach that is led by Willie’s son Micah.
IVR (Milo Gonzalez, Nikita Sorokin, Jeff Smith, Tony Peluso, Micah Nelson) uses psychedelic/folk influences to fuel their rather progressive jams. Not quite a ‘jam band,’ they do have lots of experimental passages that are driven by the use of instruments that are not usually played in contemporary bands.
Nelson’s picking on the charango (a small lute), as well as the use of banjo, sitar, kazoo, and harmonium (pump organ), give plenty of territory for IVR to showcase their talents. Pulling from their recent release Theyllkillyaa (2016), IVR mesmerized the crowd with their organic long play jams. The title track from Theyllkillyaa in particular seemed to take a fluid form, resonating with the audience to heat up the Fillmore in anticipation of the headliner.
Setlist: Whiskey River | Still Is Still Moving to Me | Beer for My Horses (Toby Keith cover) | Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings cover) | Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys (Ed Bruce cover) | Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground | On the Road Again | Always on My Mind (Brenda Lee cover) | Jambalaya (On the Bayou) (Hank Williams cover) | Hey Good Lookin’ (Hank Williams cover) | Move It On Over (Hank Williams cover) | Nuages (Django Reinhardt cover) | Shoeshine Man (Tom T. Hall cover) | Georgia on My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael cover) | Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver cover) | Funny How Time Slips Away | Crazy | Night Life | Down Yonder | Happy Birthday (Mildred J. Hill cover) | It’s All Going to Pot (Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard cover) | Still Not Dead | Little Old Fashioned Karma | Will the Circle Be Unbroken? ([traditional] cover) | I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover)
For anyone who has spent the last sixty years asleep and/or unborn, find out more about Willie Nelson here.
Insects vs Robots:
Learn all about Insects vs Robots here.
Photo by Jeff Fusco.