Monday, May 7, 2012

Willie Nelson at the Keswick Theater - May 6, 2012

Courtesy of Dave and Lori, I did something that I never would have imagined myself doing; I went to a Willie Nelson concert tonight. My knowledge of Willie's music is perhaps a little more than the average person's, but probably not by much, and I wouldn't consider myself a huge fan. I appreciate that he is a musical icon, and there are some songs of his that I like, but that has been the extent of it. Until now (but I am jumping ahead).

The tickets were for a show at the Keswick Theater, a 1,300 seat theater in Glenside, PA. I had never been there before, but talking to several people who had been to concerts there led me to believe it would be much like the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. It was exactly that. An aging theater, a little shabby around the edges, but a nice old place complete with a bar in the lobby.

The show was to begin at 7:30, and as far as I could tell from the website, there was not an opening act. We arrived in plenty of time, almost got run over by Willie's tour bus in the parking lot next to the theater, and were in our seats with a glass of wine 15 or 20 minutes before showtime. The setting was very spare; a smallish stage with a plain black backdrop and almost no equipment on the stage. Minimalist might be an understatement. There was a beat up old acoustic guitar on a stand, a few amps, a piano, a couple microphone stands, and a pair of basses (one electric, one upright). On a small platform at the back was a lone snare drum and a stool. Minimalist.

At about 7:35 or 7:40, Willie and a few others walked out onto the stage, picked up their instruments and said "hi". A huge Texas state flag unfurled behind the stage, and Willie and his little band launched into their first song. They barely took a breather for the next hour and forty minutes. Song. Thank you. Song. Thank you. Song. Etc... The band consisted of Willie, a bass, a piano, a pair of drummers who took turns playing the single snare drum, and a harmonica player. That's it. Nothing fancy; this was entirely about Willie and the music. The majority of the time, the other musicians faded into the background and almost weren't there at all...

Dave and I both remarked afterwards how many songs he was able to cram into a one hour and forty minute show. As Dave put it, fifty songs at two minutes each. This is an exaggeration, but probably not by as much as you might think. The songs came fast and furious, and despite not being a true Willie fan, I knew most of them (as I think would most people). Our Dad having liked Willie, and having a few of those albums played around the house when we were high school or college aged was a contributor to that, I am sure.

There were the well known but kitschy. On the Road Again, To All the Girls I've Loved Before, and Mamas Don't Let You Babies Grow up to be Cowboys. Amparo and I both agreed that Too All the Girls made us both cringe, but we saw Willie perform it live, and that's something. Me and Bobby McGee.

The Beautiful. Always on my Mind, Crazy, and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground. Classics like Georgia on My Mind and Night Life. The lovely Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, which is the Willie song that makes me think of Dad more than any other. And my absolute favorite of his - City of New Orleans. (another good version of City here...)

There was a more recent song that I recognized from a CD I have; Beer for My Horses. A very old song that he re-recorded recently; A Horse Called Music. Yesterday's Wine. Whiskey River. I Never Cared for You. And the hilarious You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore. Superman.

Several of these last songs I don't know, but I have to say that seeing an American music icon in person in a small venue made me want to document this while it was still fresh in my mind. Internet discographies have come to my rescue and provided the titles; I remember some lyrics or the choruses, and the titles become obvious.

As with many concerts we go to these days, we were on the younger side of average. I think more than anything this certainly says more about the kinds of music we like, but we like what we like. Much of the audience were obviously big Willie fans and had been to his concerts before, judging from attire, the back and forth singalong bits, and the obvious knowledge of the music.

After an hour and forty minutes, and having played just about every song of his I could have expected, he said "thank you, good night" and put down his guitar. While the band continued to play background fill, Willie went to the edge of the stage and began shaking hands and signing autographs. We figured he would do this for a minute or two then do an encore song. More time passed. More signing and shaking. More time, more signing and shaking. We began to debate whether he was done or not. But the band was still playing in the background. Then more signing. After a solid ten minutes, it became apparent that he was done, we all shrugged, and headed for the exit. Watching a legend sign autographs for ten minutes was less exciting than the music. As we made our way out of the auditorium, Willie waved goodbye one last time and walked off the stage as roadies began to pack his gear. Given the tiny amount of equipment on the stage, we joked that he and his band would be loaded up and on the road to the next city before we made it to our cars. He probably was...

Despite not knowing quite what to expect going into this, it was in many ways a magical night. It's not everyday that you get to see a living legend from about 100 feet away, and the music was terrific. His voice may have gotten a little rougher as he has aged (he just turned 79), but this is Willie Nelson after all, so how could you even really tell? I thought his voice was strong and clear for a man his age, and was every bit the trademark sound you would expect it to be. The biggest surprise to me, I suppose, was his guitar playing. I knew he played, but didn't know how well. I guess I thought his playing would be more along the lines of strumming along while he sang, but that was far from the case. Calling him a virtuoso would be an overstatement to all those technical masters out there, but in his own way he was just that; rugged, rough around the edges, but heartfelt and genuine. In other words, his playing matched his singing and his music perfectly. He played country, folk and blues riffs and fills, and even a few beautiful passages that sounded more classical than anything. This was all a surprise to me and a very nice one. It was a wonderful evening and a great concert.

Fan or not, I can't recommend seeing Willie Nelson highly enough. I loved it. And somewhere Dad is smiling...


  1. Great post. This captures the evening perfectly. Glad we could see it with you.

  2. I was there too. Willie is always great! Beautiful venue, beautiful music, beautiful evening. I'll be in Wilmington to see him in June. A national treasure!