Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River” has been flowing through the Santa Barbara Bowl on a nearly annual basis for years now, and Nelson and his band began their set with it last Thursday night. A big cheer went up into the night air with it, almost as if the last Nelson concert had never ended and the next one would soon begin. He may be even older and more beat-up than his ragged Martin guitar (lovingly dubbed “Trigger”), but Nelson’s voice remains smooth and powerful, the perfect analogue to the brown liquor that he hymns about so frequently, only without the hangover. He sang “Funny How Time Slips Away” and decorated it with a sublime guitar solo, then plunged from there into two of his most revered classics, “Crazy” and “Nightlife.”
In a red bandana, one of many that he wore before tossing them to the crowd, Nelson used his first substantial break to introduce the band: standup drummer Paul English, bass player Bee Spears, Nelson’s sister Bobbie on piano, English’s younger brother, Billy, on percussion, and harmonica man Mickey Raphael. From there it was a cavalcade of memories, as Nelson worked through the most familiar numbers in his songbook, tracing his roots with two by Hank Williams, acknowledging his peers with a shout-out and a cover for Waylon Jennings, and finally going all the way back to his own breakthrough album, Red Headed Stranger, for a slow and dreamy version of “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.”
Perhaps the night’s most poignant moment came on a relatively recent song that was written as a personal joke. “Superman” dates from Nelson’s treatment for exhaustion, circa 2007, and makes light of the star’s penchant for believing that he can do anything for as long as he wants. It provoked a great deal of good-natured laughter from the sympathetic crowd, many of whom are confronting aging with the same mixed feelings the artist portrays so well. A rousing “I Saw the Light” gave Nelson one last shot at tearing off a memorable guitar solo and he took it, easily delivering another of his jazzy riffs.