Music review: Eccentric and all, Willie Nelson lives up to his legend at Minnesota Zoo amphitheater

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2013 - 12:57 PM

REVIEW: Mystique outmatched music at first, but then 80-year-old Willie found his comfort zone.

Bruno Mars, Beyoncé and One Direction all in the Twin Cities in the same week! Awesome!

Sorry, kids. Your parents can trump that — Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Brian Wilson, arguably the four greatest living American songwriters, all in the Twin Cities this month.

Those music giants, all north of 70, are past their prime, but they are still making albums, drawing crowds and offering some of the greatest song catalogs ever.

Dylan pulled in 14,000 last week at sold-out Midway Stadium in St. Paul. Tuesday night, it was standing-room-only for Willie — no one calls him Nelson — at the 1,500-seat Minnesota Zoo amphitheater, a tiny outdoor gig that was as rare for him as not smoking weed.

As with Dylan last week, the mystique outdistanced the music, the songs satisfied more than the singing, the memories mattered as much as the moment. At least for the first half of Willie’s 90-minute performance. His vocal phrasing was freewheeling, his voice mostly uninspired and his guitar often out of tune. His frequent guitar solos — on that legendary Martin acoustic with the extra unplanned hole in it — were more rhythmic hammering of chords than the flowing, articulate jazzy runs that he’s become known for.

In short, the first half of Willie’s performance, like Dylan’s entire evening, was more eccentric than exciting.

But while the 72-year-old Dylan is a dour-faced curmudgeon who rarely acknowledges the audience, Willie, 80, filled his performance with pieces of his personality or little Willie-isms — pointing his right index finger in the air for dramatic effect, cupping his right hand behind his ear to get the fans to sing along, rolling his eyes at a suggestive lyric, acknowledging individual fans with a glance, a pointed finger or, in a couple cases, a sweaty bandanna pulled off his head. (And signing autographs at show’s end, as his band played on.)

And when Willie got to “On the Road Again,” one of his biggest hits, he suddenly found the right melody and tempo, with the crowd clapping along. Thereafter, Willie was in a Willie zone, delivering about as good as it probably gets from him on a Texas-hot night outdoors. “Always on My Mind” showed his vocal range, beauty and strength — complete with a little vibrato on the final word. The bandleader finally cut Mickey Raphael loose on harmonica on “Matchbox,” Carl Perkins’ jump-blues boogie. Willie’s singing became unabashedly elegant on “South of the Border,” whose sound matches the title.

There were plenty of piano opportunities for his sister, Bobbie Nelson, notably on Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man” and Willie’s recent “Superman,” a blues shuffle with a playful lyric. The siblings teamed up for a mesmerizing bolero instrumental introduction to “I Never Cared for You.” Willie may be classified as a country musician, but he was all over the spectrum at the zoo — from gospel and blues to rock and standards to covers of his favorite writers, including Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings. And Willie always sprinkles in a little humor, most especially Tuesday on the new “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a honky-tonk novelty number during which his eyes and eyebrows were very animated and his daughter Amy sang harmony.

In the end, if Dylan lived up to his legend last week, Willie lived up to his legacy this week. Can’t wait to see if Bruno Mars, Beyoncé and One Direction last long enough to have both.

Set list: www.startribune.com/artcetera

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