Well, hello there, Willie Nelson. My, it's been a long, long time. Like 8 1/2 years since you headlined a concert in the Twin Cities.
Fans were bummed when you postponed your two shows at Mystic Lake Casino in March on a less than a week's notice and then delayed the original makeup dates for October. But all is forgiven after Friday night's sold-out concert at Mystic: It was the most intimate, jazziest and most guitar-dominated show you've ever given in the Twin Cities.
This 87-minute performance could have played perfectly in the tiny Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis.
But you were performing in a booze-free casino, and you fittingly played it nice and sober. To be sure, "Whiskey River" was the opener, as it's been in nearly every show you've done since -- what? -- the mid-1970s. But there were no other drinkin' songs like "Bloody Mary Morning" and "I Gotta Get Drunk" except for "Beer for My Horses," which you did less aggressively than Toby Keith. Overall on Friday, you played it sober and subtle -- softer than I've ever heard you before but oh so satisfying.
The band has been reconfigured for a smaller sound: No electric guitarist anymore, just a snare instead of a full drum kit (Why did Paul English play on only one or two songs and his brother Billy do the rest of the show?) and basically one electric instrument, Bee Spears' bass. And it seems like your good old guitar has added another unplanned hole. You're 77, but that weathered instrument has been around longer than your four wives combined.
Your guitar work never sounded better in Minnesota. All the colors on your palette were in evidence: blues, Mexican, flamenco, folk, jazz, country, gospel, a little rock and a lot of gypsy jazz. Loved the range of guitar styles you showed during your classic medley of "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Nightlife." Clearly, Django Reinhardt is a favorite of yours. Your version of his instrumental "Nuage" featured gorgeous guitar and wonderful piano from your sister, Bobbie. Mickey Raphael also did some terrifically understated work on the harmonica, especially his haunting sounds on the slow gospelly blues reading of "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and his exchange with your guitar on the 12-bar "Rainy Day Blues."
While your guitar was commanding and compelling all night long, your vocals seemed hurried and casual early on. But during that run of Hank Williams' songs in the middle of the set, your formerly free-wheeling phrasing became more careful and your emotions more committed. You were actually bending and holding notes on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." "These Healing Hands of Time" showed the power of your words, voice and bluesy guitar.
Although many fans would have liked an encore, the ones in front were thrilled that you spent 10 minutes shaking hands and autographing cowboy hats, old vinyl albums, that handmade Willie rag doll and whatever they handed you.
Just don't make us wait so long for your return after Saturday's show. Because no Willie fan will let this kind of good time slip away.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719