Although he never mentioned on stage where he was going, Willie Nelson could be forgiven for pulling away in the Honeysuckle Rose (his tour bus) right away after Wednesday night’s breezy performance at the Vetter Stone Amphitheater in Mankato’s Riverfront Park. The Texas music legend, 79, has to make it all the way to Hershey, Penn., by Saturday for his 27th annual Farm Aid concert. You have to hand it Ol’ Willie, when he finds something he likes, he sticks to it like armadillos on a hot Texas highway – which pretty much sums up his 85-minute set Wednesday, too.
A fitting stop in the heart of farm country for Farm Aid week, Mankato's nicely designed amphitheater might have felt a bit like home to Willie. Its curved canopy looks just like the one at Stubb's BBQ back in Austin, Texas, and the tiered limestone "seats" resembled the Texas Hill Country where his ranch lies. As was the case at his last Twin Cities area performance (Mystic Lake Casino, October 2010), he performed with a whittled-down lineup of his venerable, aging Family band. His longest-running running mate, Paul English, was back on drums, but Sister Bobbie was a no-show on piano and no one stood in for recently retired guitarist Jody Payne. That left harmonica ace Mickey Raphael and Willie’s old guitar Trigger to do most of the work.
Rowdier numbers such as “Whiskey River” and “Good Hearted Woman” sounded a bit hollow, but the 4,000 or so fans were treated to extra finesse in some of the more tender tunes, including “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” His voice wasn’t all there, but Willie’s guitar work was as immaculate as ever, with bluesy fills in “Night Life” that would put most full-time blues players to shame and two different Django Reinghardt instrumentals that nearly stole the show.
In addition to the Kristofferson staple, Willie gave a walking tour of many of his other favorite songwriters, including Tom T. Hall (“Shoeshine Man”), Billy Joe Shaver (“You Ask Me To” and “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train”) and, of course, Hank Williams (“Jambalaya,” “I Saw the Light,” “Move It On Over”). He offered up a couple of his own recent, whimsical songwriting nuggets, too, including the anti-aging anthem “Superman” and one from last year that earned him the night’s biggest laughs.
“I got a new gospel song to do,” he casually muttered. “It’s called ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.’ ”
As always, things will get a lot more serious for Willie on Saturday at Farm Aid. It’s probably no mistake that the event is taking place in what’s considered a key swing state in the November election. Willie will make his pitch on behalf of independent farmers with his usual help from Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews. Kenny Chesney, Jack Johnson, Jamey Johnson and Willie’s shadow-escaping son Lukas Nelson are also scheduled to perform at it. Young, by the way, is supposed to play with Crazy Horse there. The Farm Aid site will have a webcast from the concert 7-10 p.m. Saturday (Central Time). You can click here to support the various Farm Aid causes, including a food drive and the Good Food Movement.