Willie Nelson and Family played the FireLake Arena in Shawnee, OK this past Friday and it provided for one of the most unique concert experiences I’ve ever had. A good friend of mine works on Willie’s crew and he and the crew generously provided me with an all access pass for the day and show. Here’s the thing, having a pass isn’t as glamorous as everyone thinks. But for a music geek like me, it was still undeniably cool. What others would likely find monotonous, I enjoyed immensely. From the load-in of equipment, and the set up of merchandise to the techs obsessively checking and double checking lighting, and sound equipment on stage. The band doesn’t do a soundcheck at all. Rather, techs ensure everything is in tune and ready to go. In fact, Nelson and his bus won’t even arrive in until just before the plays. He steps off the bus, signs a select number of items placed for him backstage, walks up the steps, plugs in ‘Trigger,’ hits those opening chords to “Whiskey River,” and just like that, it’s show time.
Throughout the day and leading up to the show, I was humbled to be treated like part of the family. From briefly watching Astros baseball with Mickey Raphael, to sharing a backstage meal and listening to hilarious stories in catering with the crew, I got a good glimpse of what a day on tour encompasses and did my best to take it all in and remember all the details. These guys work hard and it’s certainly far from the never ending party most people would expect. Instead, there’s hectic periods of intense focus and activity, followed by downtime and boredom. But these guys undoubtedly love it. They’re dedicated and proud of what they do, and certainly should be. It certainly shows and definitely pays off when the band takes the stage. While most fans in attendance pay it little mind, there’s no doubt that the show couldn’t happen without them.
Performance wise, Willie and Family play a pretty straightforward planned set. While a few songs may get swapped out from tour to tour, the good chunk of fan favorites are always going to be there. “On The Road Again,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Good Hearted Woman.” How could they not be? As far as songwriters go, Willie Nelson is truly an American treasure. His songbook is as vast as the Grand Canyon and as deep as the ocean, but Nelson is also sure to honor other legendary songwriters throughout his set. Tonight there was a Hank Williams medley of “Jambalaya/Hey Good Looking/Move it on Over”, Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man”, and he even worked in a bit of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages”. The really wonderful surprise in the set for me was the inclusion of Guy Clark’s heartwarming song, “My Favorite Picture of You”. But as far as a personal musical highlight, for me it was standing in the backstage area side stage, just twenty feet or so from Willie, watching him play “Angel Flying To Close To the Ground” and “Always on My Mind”. I was close enough to watch Nelson’s fingers at work on two of my most beloved guitar solos he’s written. A sublime moment if there ever was one.
As the evenings music comes to a close with the joyous sing-along, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away”, Nelson unstraps ‘Trigger’, waves to the crowd and makes his way back to his bus. As the house lights came up and the crew goes to work packing things away I begin to process the day’s events in my mind. Out of the corner of my eye I see Bobbie Nelson rise from her piano bench, and head towards the rear of the stage. I watch as Paul English steps away from his drum kit, take Bobbie’s arm and walks her carefully down the stage steps and out to the bus. That’s when it really hits me. That simple gesture reminded me of just how special an experience this evening was and how fortunate I was to be able to experience it. All too quickly it came to an end. A bit more conversation, and then I say my goodbyes as the crew goes back to work. Just like that, like a band of gypsies, we all go down the highway once again.