“I feel like I’ve been here before,” Willie Nelson wisecracked on Wednesday night at PNC Music Pavilion, with a thin smile and a stroke of his beard.
The Country Music Hall of Famer wasn’t the only one suffering from a little déjà vu.
Just 31/2 weeks earlier — after Mitchell Lee, Wild Feathers, Old Crow Medicine Show and Sturgill Simpson warmed up the joint for him — Nelson twice came onto this stage in north Charlotte and almost immediately walked back off of it. His set was eventually scrapped without him ever playing or singing a single note, with the promoter saying, simply, that the postponement was “due to illness.”
A large chunk of that same crowd was back at the outdoor amphitheater on Wednesday, one of the hottest nights of the year so far, for Outlaw Music Festival Take Two; and as the entirely new lineup of Sarah Shook and The Disarmers, Jamey Johnson and The Avett Brothers played along, forgive us if we couldn’t help but wonder: Would Willie be good to go this time?
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After all, that May 26 show in Charlotte isn’t the only one he’s had to bail on this year due to illness (despite Johnson’s claim that “I never heard of Willie Nelson missing a show”). And Nelson’s played just one time since bowing out here — the next night, in D.C. So, it’d been a few weeks since he’d performed.
Plus, the weather conditions were nasty. As south Alabamian Johnson said midway through his 45-minute set, “We call it ‘air you can wear.’ You need gills to breathe. If you hear someone gargling out there, just point ’em out. We’ll get ’em a respirator or something.”
Oh, and Willie Nelson is 85 years old.
Last time, he now-famously shuffled slowly onto the stage, picked up his guitar, set the guitar back down, curtly whipped his cowboy hat into the crowd, then shuffled back off-stage.
So this time — after Nelson shuffled onto the stage, waved, smiled, tipped his cowboy hat, picked up his guitar, started playing the guitar, and stepped to the mic — 15,000 people managed to breathe a sigh of relief and let loose a whoop when he warbled the first line of “Whiskey River.”
He had a tough act to follow. Earlier in the evening, The Avett Brothers threatened to steal the show from the headliner with an hour-long set that showcased everything their fans love about them: innovative harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, tight musicianship, arresting showmanship and a little bit of humor. (“We are overjoyed to be here in Charlotte, North Carolina. We could almost walk here,” Seth Avett quipped on behalf of the band, which is based in Concord, just up the road from PNC.)
In one moment, they can sing and play with foot-stomping, full-on folk-rock verve while performing “Talk on Indolence,” which saw 1) Scott Avett drop to his knees while wailing away on his banjo and 2) cellist Joe Kwon ditch his bow to use his fingers on the instrument like a guitar — so furiously that his hat and glasses went flying off his head.
In the next, they can strip down to the pining acoustic number “I Wish I Was,” which plays from start to finish like a masterclass in songwriting (“I wish I was a sweater wrapped around your hips / And when it got too cold into me you’d slip...”), presented in Seth Avett’s plaintive delivery.
Every move they make — every direction they take their show in — looks so organic. In between songs, the brothers often talk off-mic amongst each other, as well as to Kwon and bassist Bob Crawford; and while it’s unclear what exactly they’re saying, they seem to literally be working things out on the fly.
Lending credence to this theory: If you look up their setlists online, they’re almost always different from night to night, sometimes vastly so. That’s rare in this business, at this level. On Wednesday night, they teed up both “At the Beach” (a sunny cut from 2004’s “Mignonette”) and set-closer “Through My Prayers” (a sorrowful track from 2012’s “The Carpenter”) by saying someone had requested the song.
Also supporting the theory that they’re winging it: As Seth Avett led a call-and-response singalong near the end of “At the Beach,” Scott Avett casually strolled off the stage and down the ramp into Section 3 to mingle and pose for selfies with fans — apparently without giving security staff advance notice, as no one seemed to be around to help in case of emergency. That’s also almost unheard of in this business, at this level.
But what’s even more astonishing than the freewheeling setlists and the freewheeling attitude toward wading into the crowd, in this business, at this level, these days, is an 85-year-old performer who can still bring it.
And Willie Nelson can still bring it.
Backed by his “Family” band — which features Kevin Smith on bass, Paul English and Billy English sharing drumming duties, Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Nelson’s younger sister Bobbie Nelson on piano — the singer tore through an impressive number of songs in just over an hour (25, if you count a few that were basically parts of medleys). He sometimes didn’t stop for a beat or even a breath while moving from one song to the next.
At first, he may have given off the impression of rushing too much. But it’s more likely, I think, that he had come here to play music, and he wanted to perform as much of it as possible in the time he had.
Sure, he could have taken time to explain what precisely was ailing him when he was here back in May (although that’s kind of none of our business); he also might have offered an apology for the frustration fans probably felt that night when they had to stand around in the dark for an hour before being told Nelson was ill and the show was over.
The counterargument: Did you want him to talk about health issues and hear his “I’m sorry’s” Wednesday, or did you want him to use that time for another song or two?
And so Nelson just played, ranging all over the map in his setlist, from covers of country classics by Waylon Jennings (“Good Hearted Woman”) and Billy Joe Shaver (“I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train”) ... to ambitious renditions of iconic standards like “Crazy” (which Nelson wrote, but Patsy Cline made famous) and “Georgia on My Mind” (which Ray Charles did best) ... to his own iconic standards (like “Always On My Mind” and “On the Road Again”).
Vocally, he sometimes swerved between speaking the lyrics and singing them; but somehow, it never caused cringing. I think it was partly because there was conviction in his voice either way.
He also seemed to be having a fair amount of fun. During “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” for instance — as he repeatedly said “Mammas,” then threw his right hand up toward the sky, then pulled it to his ear as the crowd shouted back at him “don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” — his exuberance was apparent.
While his sister pounded on the piano during the bridge of “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” Nelson suddenly took off his cowboy hat and whipped it into the crowd with a wide smile (in contrast to the scowl he wore when he whipped his hat into the crowd the night he couldn’t perform). Over the course of the night, he would go on to don and ditch into the expensive seats several red bandanas, as well as a West Virginia University ballcap that was tossed onstage by a fan.
If his guitar sounded just slightly out of tune all night, perhaps some of that can be blamed on its age: In close-up shots of his famous “Trigger” acoustic guitar that were cast onto the venue’s big screens, the nearly half-century-old instrument appeared as weather-beaten as Nelson’s hands. (If you’ve seen his hands lately, you know that’s saying something.)
In spite of this, the man can still hold his own as a player. A particularly shining moment: His re-creation of Django Reinhardt’s succulently orchestrated “Nuages.”
On some level — based on his age and what happened last month and his nagging health problems in general — the simple fact that Nelson was able to get up there and sing and play guitar is an accomplishment. Then when you consider that he did all of those things well, at his age, it’s remarkable. How many 85-year-olds do you know with that kind of talent and that kind of stamina in any field of play?
And bottom line, for anybody who was lucky enough to be at PNC Wednesday night: YOU GOT TO SEE WILLIE NELSON. One of the best country artists who’s ever lived.
Seth Avett, midway through The Avett Brothers’ set, said this: “Any night that Willie Nelson is performing is a really special night. We are so happy to be here, and to (be able to) look to Willie for wisdom, and for humor, and for artistry. He’s a living national treasure.”
It’s very hard to disagree with any of that.
Willie Nelson’s setlist
1. “Whiskey River”
2. “Still Is Still Moving to Me”
3. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (Ed Bruce cover)
4. “Good Hearted Woman” (Waylon Jennings cover)
5. “Down Yonder” (L. Wolfe Gilbert cover)
6. “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” (Lefty Frizzell cover)
7. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”
8. “On the Road Again”
9. “Always on My Mind”
10. “It’s All Going to Pot” (Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard cover)
11. “Nuages” (Django Reinhardt cover)
12. “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” / “Hey Good Lookin’” / “Move It On Over” (Hank Williams cover)
13. “Shoeshine Man” (Tom T. Hall cover)
14. “Georgia on My Mind” (Hoagy Carmichael cover)
15. “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” (Billy Joe Shaver cover)
16. “Funny How Time Slips Away”
18. “Night Life”
19. “Still Not Dead”
20. “Something You Get Through”
21. “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
22. “I’ll Fly Away” (Albert E. Brumley cover)
The Avett Brothers’ setlist
1. “Laundry Room”
2. “Distraction #74”
3. “Down With the Shine”
4. “Talk on Indolence”
5. “Murder in the City”
6. “I Wish I Was”
8. “Satan Pulls the Strings”
9. “At the Beach”
10. “Standing With You”
11. “Mama Tried” (Merle Haggard cover)
12. “Through My Prayers”
Jamey Johnson’s setlist
1. “High Cost of Living”
2. “Mary Go Round”
3. “That Lonesome Song”
4. “Back to Caroline”
5. “In Color”
6. “Give It Away” (George Strait cover)
7. “You Asked Me To” (Waylon Jennings cover)
8. “Why You Been Gone So Long”