April 11, 2002
Classic Center-Athens, GA


Willie Nelson started his Classic Center show like every appearance for the last thirty years or so. The Texas flag dropped to the opening strains of "Whiskey River" and the sold out crowd rose up their voices and bodies. Having seen Willie several times, I knew exactly what to expect. I could even have told you the song order before arriving at the venue...or so I thought. Sure, Nelson breezed through 20 or so of his biggest hits. Who could complain about hearing "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" or "Funny How Time Slips Away" again? He also worked his way through several of his duets from the eighties, hits by his buddy Kris Kristofferson and the standards from the classic Stardust album (including an especially audience appreciated "Georgia On My Mind"). The balance of the 45 song set was comprised of lesser known gems such as "Still Is Still Moving To Me," "I Never Cared For You," and "Til I Gain Control Again."

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The surprise for me was in the renewed life. The last couple of times I've seen Willie, he's appeared to be on autopilot. You can't blame him because the concerts are always brilliant, but I've never been lucky enough to see as much fire as this night in Athens. When he instructed us to "listen to what the blues are saying" in "Night Life," he delivered it (and the solo afterwards) like it was the first time.   Also, his band was an even bigger focus than usual. Sure, Jody Payne always does Merle's "Working Man Blues" and "little sister Bobbie" hits on the instrumental piano piece "Down Yonder" every night. This evening, though, guitarists Jackie King, Jody Payne and Willie were especially soulful. "The Great Divide" was amazing. The 3 guitarists switched off and harmonized on the "Hotel California”-style licks at the end of the phenomenal new tune.

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Even old chestnuts like "On The Road Again" and "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" came across tighter than I've ever heard them. The latter song wasn't the only unspoken nod to Willie's brother in arms Waylon Jennings.  Without mentioning the loss of his good friend specifically, Waylon's spirit was definitely in the air during "Good Hearted Woman" and "Luckenbach, Texas (The Basics Of Love)."  About three-quarters of the way into the show, Willie pulled out a slew of his hero Hank Williams’ songs that had the audience on their feet singing along. "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Jambalaya" were particularly potent. However, I was most happy by some of the other song choices. Usually, Willie's set is as predictable as the man's hair color. Tonight, however found him digging up "If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time" and "Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In" and dropping former set constants "I Gotta Get Drunk" and "Uncloudy Day."

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Since his record of the same name came out last year, he's even taking to covering Kermit The Frog's "The Rainbow Connection." That may seem an odd choice to some, but as soon as you hear Mr. Nelson's interpretation, it all makes sense. After a presumably show ending, audience participation heavy "Move It On Over," I was thrilled to hear the man say "this is how we used to open the show back in 1961." The band actually looked a bit caught off guard as they were led into the trio of "Mr. Record Man," Hello Walls," and "One Day At A Time." To end the show, "Truck Drivin' Man" was upbeat and smile inducing even if most of the people in attendance didn't know the song. Tonight, Willie didn't stick around the wings of the shows signing autographs while the band vamped. He didn't even shake a hand. He did, however, play the most inspired, intriguing and satisfying show I've ever seen him do. I guess that's what makes the man such an icon. As soon as you figure him out, he'll surprise you. I hope to be pleasantly surprised many more times.

 Chris McKay/concertshots.com


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WILLIE NELSON Set List (April 11, 2002):

1. Whiskey River

2. Stay A Little Longer

3. Good Hearted Woman

4. Funny How Time Slips Away

5. Crazy

6. Night Life

7. Down Yonder

8. Working Man Blues

9. Help Me Make It Through The Night

10. Me And Bobby McGee

11. Me And Paul

12. If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time

13. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain

14. Blue Skies

15. Georgia On My Mind

16. All Of Me

17. Stardust

18. Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys

19. Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground

20. On The Road Again

21. Always On My Mind

22. Seven Spanish Angels

23. To All The Girls I've Loved Before

24. Luckenbach, TX (The Basics Of Love)

25. Whiskey River (reprise)

26. Still Is Still Moving To Me

27. Milk Cow Blues

28. Pancho And Lefty

29. Maria (Shut Up And Kiss Me)

30. Just Dropped In To See (What Condition My Condition Was In)

31. The Great Divide

32. My Bucket's Got A Hole In It

33. Jambalaya

34. Hey Good Lookin'

35. Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour?

36. I Never Cared For You

37. 'Til I Gain Control Again

38. Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

39. I'll Fly Away

40. Rainbow Connection

41. Move It On Over

42. Mr. Record Man

43. Hello Walls

44. One Day At A Time

45. Truck Drivin' Man