If Saturday's sold-out Mystic Showroom audience needed any reassurance Willie Nelson is still worth the $60-$70 ticket, it came just a few songs into the rudimentary concert when Texas' Gandalf-like lord of the smoke rings lit into "Night Life."
Yes, "Night Life" is a song ol' Willie has played so often he could do it with one hand tied behind his ponytails. But it's one of many Willie Nelson classics famously rerecorded by other American music icons, in this case B.B. King, who died two days earlier.
"Night Life" thus served as a reminder to see these giants while they still walk among us — although, if his New Balance shoes were any indicator, Willie still jogs among us at 82.
Like King, Nelson's set lists have become routine since he entered his 80s. Saturday's concert was shorter than usual, too, clocking in at 75 minutes on the dot. Unlike B.B., though, Willie hasn't resorted to personality-driven shtick and canned humor to prop up his shows. He still lets the music do the talking. And boy oh boy, did it scream at times on Saturday.
Look no further than "Night Life," during which he ripped out a lengthy, bluesy solo on his haggard-looking acoustic guitar Trigger that would have bedazzled King himself.
Not only were his picking skills exemplary — they've never slipped, actually — but his singing stood strong, too. Only a few shows into his latest tour leg, he was able to deliver a heartbreaking version of "Always on My Mind" and an elegant "Georgia on My Mind," standards he famously reinterpreted on record. It still means something when Willie sings the songs that meant a lot to him. He also threw in his usual spirited batch of Hank Williams tunes ("Jambalaya," "Move It on Over" and "I Saw the Light"), and paid tribute to a couple of his favorite songwriters, Tom T. Hall ("Shoeshine Man") and Kris Kristofferson ("Help Me Make It Through the Night").
As always, Nelson improvised vocally like a more bloodshot-eyed Frank Sinatra to give his own tunes a special, sometimes mystical flavor, including "Crazy," "On the Road Again," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and an especially slow-stirring take on "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground." He even put a playful rhythmic twist on his newest song, "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," which he introduced after "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" as "another gospel tune."
Willie's Family band hasn't been as resilient as its leader, but the mere presence of its surviving members added sentimental value Saturday.
His older sister, Bobbie Nelson, was back on piano and able to strut her stuff in "Down Yonder." Drummer Paul English mostly left the timekeeping to his brother Billy but did return to the snare during "Me and Paul." And harmonica player Mickey Raphael — who literally grew up in the Family — was integral throughout, with the same kind of uniquely identifiable sound as Willie's guitar.
"Leave me if you need to / I will still remember," Willie sang beside his bandmates in "Angel Flying," still doing justice to their unforgettable legacy.