Willie Nelson — still a crowd-pleaser — on or off the road

When he sang "I'll be gone 500 miles when the morning comes" from Steven Goodman's "City of New Orleans" and the lights came up high, it was an unmistakable comment on the life Willie Nelson still chooses much of each year.

A moment earlier he sang the first line of the song's chorus — "Good morning, America, how are you?" — and the Britt crowd responded with a full-throated roar. That was fairly early in Thursday night's show, only the 13th song, I think.

It came just after Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," which ripped your heart out, and just before Albert Hammond's wry "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." If you thought he wrote those two songs, that's a measure of how the man makes a song definitely, forever his.

Willie Nelson still looks like a man having too much fun. He wrapped up his annual Country Throwdown amphitheater trek, had a lovefest with green groups Amazon Watch and Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance in San Francisco, then got inducted into the Agriculture Hall of Fame alongside Thomas Jefferson, George Washington Carver and John Deere, and that's just this month.

Consider that it's been 50 years since he wrote the likes of "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Hello Walls" and "Crazy," 30-something years since he changed American music when college kids and hippies began turning up at his annual picnics in Texas along with the cowboys and rednecks, fueled by a sense that something new was going on.

Willie isn't getting any younger, and that gaping hole in his gut-string guitar Trigger isn't getting any smaller. Nelson's country-sweet blend of jazz, blues, pop and gospel hasn't changed. He still sings off the beat in that nasal treasure of a voice. But somehow he's singing and playing with more passion now than the last time I saw him a couple years ago.

He walked casually onto the stage in a T-shirt and black cowboy hat and played John Shinn's "Whiskey River" (nope, he didn't write that one either), moved quickly to his "Still is Still Moving to Me," jumped into "Whiskey for My Men," all with that edge of a sound.

This was by way of warm-up, as Nelson and his band — sister Bobbie on piano, harpist Mickey Raphael, bassist Bee Spears and percussionists the English brothers — in turn cranked things up with a trilogy of Nelson classics, "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Night Life."

These were delivered with Willie's iconic, around-the-beat phrasing, the effects of which can range from the enrichment of simple lyric lines with a jazzy nonchalance to a sense of lines other singers would lean hard on being treated as throw-aways. So much attention has been paid to his singing over the years that his guitar-playing is often overlooked. It has been and remains the single best complement to his voice, jazzy, evocative and precise.

Nelson and company delivered the slice-of-life "Me and Paul," an intimate "Help Me Make it Through the Night," an upbeat "Me and Bobbie McGee," and the tribute-to-Waylon "Good-Hearted Woman," shifting gears on a dime. "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" was sadder than I'd ever noticed, and "On the Road Again" finally got the crowd up and boogying.

A Hank Williams segment had Willie and company doing a herky-jerky "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," a "Hey Good Lookin' " that had even Willie singing almost on the downbeats and a rockin' "Move it On Over" in which Willie threw his baseball cap into the crowd.

One thing to like about Willie, or not if that's your druthers, is that he doesn't draw a song out. It gets its due in his eyes and he's on to the next best thing. A perfectly rousing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" segued into A.E. Brumley's "I'll Fly Away" just as it got going.

When he isn't touring, recording or collaborating with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones, he's campaigning on behalf of his favorite causes: sustainable energy (one of his biodiesel plants is in Salem, and his bus Honeysuckle Rose IV is powered by Bio-Willie), marijuana legalization and humane treatment for horses and farm animals.

But much of the time he's making like a laid-back incarnation of Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael and Ernest Tubb all mixed together, on the road again with no end in sight.

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