Review: Willie Nelson’s long, slow twilight

Video from YouTube
Video from YouTube

“Whiskey River”

“Funny How Time Slips Away”


“Night Life”

“Me and Paul”

“Help Me Make it Through the Night”

“Me and Bobby McGee”

“If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got the Time)”

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”

“Georgia on My Mind”

“Shoe Shine Man”

“I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train”

“I Gotta Get Drunk”

“I Ain’t Superman”

“On the Road Again”

“Always on My Mind”

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

“I’ll Fly Away”

“Rainy Day Blues”

“‘Til I Gain Control Again”

“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”

“Hey Good Lookin’”

“Move it on Over”

“Bloody Mary Morning”

“I Saw the Light”

Over the past decade, Willie Nelson has seamlessly slid into his role of country music’s elder spokesman.

Surprisingly, it’s a role that suits him pretty well, despite his limitations. Never a powerful singer, Nelson now sings in what could be charitably called a clipped voice. He struggles to hold notes out for more than a few beats.

But the set list for his sold-out show Sunday night at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts was full of songs where his strong guitar playing and excellent sense of phrasing could carry the day.

While his Sunday show wasn’t a revelation, it was a fitting piece in his ongoing coda. Throughout you got the feeling each song choice has been carefully considered, so that only the essential could be passed along to the audience. Perhaps Nelson starting to get a sense of his own mortality. Or perhaps he feels a need to play the role of educator.

The selections were broad, from gospel to blues to country to pop. The artists represented were varied. Nelson sang his biggest hits — “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Always on my Mind.” He played Hank Williams songs (“Hey Good Lookin,’” “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” and “Move it on Over”), a couple from his buddy Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee”) and also Billy Joe Shaver’s “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” one of those tunes known mostly to other songwriters.

At times the performances, especially of his own songs, seemed a bit perfunctory. You got the sense that he wanted to make it through an early run of mandatory originals, the songs people paid to see, so he could play the stuff he really wanted to. On tunes like “I Gotta Get Drunk,” a forgotten track from a hastily put together album from his ’70s heyday, Nelson and his band really let loose.

Always an underrated guitar player, Nelson continues to shine in this department. He led his quintet through its paces with aggressive six-string playing. It helps he’s buffered by the same band he’s played with for years. Nelson and drummer Paul English have played together since the ’50s. His brother Billy English acts as a kind of percussion mad scientist, adding noises and bangs at just the right moment. Nelson’s sister, Bobbie, glides through the blues tracks on piano. Harmonica whiz Mickey Raphael knows Nelson’s vocal limitations well enough to fill in the gaps with subtle notes.

Still the strong supporting cast can only carry Nelson so far. The rest is up to him. So much of the show is about Willie that less than a minute after he left the stage, without an encore, the crew was out packing up the gear. The band didn’t even bother to extend the song for applause.

Connect with Jonathan Foerster at

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