Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger, looks like it might give out any day but the 84-year-old singer is as strong as ever, able to roll through decades of hits in less time than it takes most people to change a tire.
Opening the summer Battery Park concert series at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Saturday night, Nelson didn’t seemed fazed by the heat or a crowd that practically rushed the stage when he showed up.
Starting with “Whiskey River,” a tradition, he didn’t crack a smile until the audience responded with “beer for my horses” when he sang “whiskey for my men.”
While some of his songs have become recitations, he didn’t cheat the choruses – or his pals. He offered several covers, gave a shout out to Waylon Jennings and looked like he was having just as much fun as the crowd.
Now 84, Nelson has won every award a musician could and doesn’t have a single thing to prove to anyone. Yet he continues to entertain like he’s 21 and just starting out.
Trigger, meanwhile, rallied for “Good Hearted Woman” and others and let the Grammy winner show he might really be able to put some other guitarists to shame with a newer instrument.
On “Always on My Mind” and “Crazy,” Nelson had a reflective phrasing that gave both even deeper meaning. Unwilling to stay too long in that vein, he quickly segued to “Shoeshine Man” and others and kicked things up a bit.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Nelson had the braids back in place, too, and topped it all with a hat that looked more Indiana Jones than cowboy.
Opener Robert Earl Keen got the Texas vibe going with enough story songs – and a travelogue of sorts about the “Amarillo Highway” – that paved the way for Nelson’s sprint through America.
Dressed in a yellow jacket and jeans, he boasted the same kind of dense lyrics that cover plenty of years of heartache and happiness. While his range isn’t quite what it used to be, Keen had plenty of conviction and a band filled with expert musicians – particularly on mandolin and steel guitar.
His “Shades of Gray” epitomized the kind of music that gets better each time its sung. Able to include everything from Charolais heifers to the 4-H rodeo, it offered up a slice of life few could ever live.
“I’ll Be Here for You” told a bit of a story, too, but let Keen express his kind of devotion.
Extending his musical reach to Scottsdale, Arizona, Oklahoma and parts just as hot as Sioux City Saturday night, Keen gave the audience a hint of the country Willie has traveled most of his life. The one-two punch made it seem like the rest of the world didn’t matter as long as good times were ready to be had.