Willie Nelson spent most of last week heavily promoting his new album, Heroes, released on May 15. But at his recent concert at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey (his second of two nights there), his focus was mainly on his catalog of hits from his five decade career.

Nelson was backed by a five piece band, including his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano and Mickey Raphael on harmonica. Willie, as always, played his ancient nylon-string guitar, “Trigger.”

They barreled through several classics in about 90 minutes, including raucous versions of “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” “Me And Paul” and “On The Road Again” as well as ballads like “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Always On My Mind.” While the audience was familiar with all the songs, it’s always a challenge to sing along with Nelson, who, like Bob Dylan, changes his vocals from the studio versions of his songs.

Nelson has always covered his friends and peers, and tonight he included some songs from the catalogs of his pals: Kris Kristofferson‘s “Me And Bobby McGee,” “You Asked Me To” (written by Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings), and Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” (he introduced the song to huge applause, saying “Let’s do one for Waylon!”)

Willie Nelson (Photo by Maria Ives)

Willie Nelson (Photo by Maria Ives)

It wasn’t all about old songs: he got great reactions to two of his semi-recent tunes: “Beer For My Horses” (written by Toby Keith) and “Superman.” The latter, he explained, was written while he was home recovering from damage he did to his throat: “Well I blew my throat and I blew my tour, I wound up sippin’ on soup d’jour.”

The condition of his vocal chords notwithstanding, his guitar playing is worth the price of admission. While many singers use a guitar as little more than a prop, Nelson’s playing is as distinct as more celebrated guitar heroes like Edward Van Halen or Jerry Garcia.

He did draw a bit from Heroes, playing “A Horse Called Music” (which he’d originally recorded from his album of the same title in 1989) and “Roll Me Up,” the latter getting laughs from the audience. A pro-marijuana song, he introduced it as “a new gospel song,” and played it between actual gospel songs “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw The Light.” The version on Heroes features guest vocals by Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson and Snoop Dogg, but Willie’s solo live version was just as potent.

It’s a point worth noting: although his albums tend to involve lots of “stunt casting” (big name producers, highly stylized themes, lots of guest stars), Nelson is at his best playing solo with his longtime backing band behind him.

— Brian Ives, CBS Local


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