NEW YORK — Everything started off smoothly at Willie Nelson’s Wednesday night (Nov. 16) concert at the beautiful Beacon Theater in New York City. When he walked on stage at a quarter past 9, you could see the silhouette of a father in the audience holding his child in the air, and then look down and notice the grizzled hippies in the seat in front of you lighting up a doobie. If anything can unite a diverse city like New York, from teenagers to grandparents, it’s Willie and his guitar.
From the instant that the gigantic Texas state flag unfurled behind him — and that’s pretty much the extent of his production value — the red-headed stranger seemed more like a much-loved friend to the eclectic crowd. He kicked things off with “Whiskey River” (of course), and then followed with “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” On the third song, when he sang the lyric, “Whiskey for my men,” the crowd enthusiastically shouted back, “Beer for my horses!” Who says there are no country fans in Manhattan?
Nelson then transitioned into the earliest days of his career, crooning “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” For whatever reason, a fight had broken out on the left side of the theater, with security guards scrambling and ticket holders stretching their necks, but I couldn’t see what had happened. Beaming with that famous grin onstage, Nelson didn’t seem to notice, and if he did, he might have just chalked it up to the power of honky-tonk music, no matter how gorgeous the venue.
Sitting toward the back of the theater, the bubbly crowd scene resembled the carnival game Whack-a-Mole, with excitable fans randomly popping up out of their seats to scream or cheer or pump their fists in the air. It could be in the first few notes, right in the middle or just at the end of the song. It didn’t matter. They’d be up for a few seconds, then drop, just as two or three others would hop up. This happened all night long, from “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Georgia on My Mind,” from “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground” to “Always on My Mind,” and on and on.
Of course, everybody leapt to their feet on classics like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and it looked just like a revival during “I’ll Fly Away,” with everybody singing along and happy folks actually dancing in the aisles. And by this point, he was only 45 minutes into his set!
The, uh, relaxed guys in the row ahead rallied enough to stand during his reggae tune, “The Harder They Come,” which then led to “Good Hearted Woman” and a string of Hank Williams covers. Then he offered the American classic, “You Don’t Know Me,” which came as somewhat of a surprise until he told the crowd that he’d be releasing an album of songs by Cindy Walker (a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame) in January. He also tried out a self-deprecating song called “I Ain’t Superman,” which he said he wrote during a three-week illness. He must have fully recovered because he seemed as spry as a man half his age, not even slowing down enough to tune his guitar.
Toward the end of the evening, country fans were treated to “I Saw the Light,” “Til I Gain Control Again,” “City of New Orleans” and “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Who else could get away with this? Considering the pace which Nelson delivers albums, this pair of concerts (he also played there on Thursday night) would make a memorable and thoroughly engaging live album — especially perfect for a party. And if somebody were to quibble about a “country & western” star like Nelson on the stereo system, you probably wouldn’t want them at your party anyway.
Opening act Ryan Adams could never be accused of chasing the spotlight. In fact, you could hardly see him on stage, what with only a few stage lights illuminating him and his new band, the Cardinals. With barely any stage banter at all, the current Manhattan resident led the way through “Shakedown on 9th Street,” “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” and “Please Do Not Let Me Go” before delving into his latest album, Jacksonville City Nights, for “A Kiss Before I Go” and “The End.”
But the end actually arrived with a pedal steel-heavy rendition of “16 Days,” a song from Adams’ time in the pioneering alt.country band, Whiskeytown.
After the final note rang out, he told the audience, “I wrote that song under the influence of much whiskey and Willie Nelson, so I thought I’d do it for you.” Then he put down his guitar and walked off the stage. His time was short (no “New York, New York” encore — even in New York), but when he emphasized his distinct country leanings and his stunning heartbroken lyrics, every minute mattered.