January 21, 2010
Classic Center
Athens, GA





I was late getting into the Classic Center tonight. By the time I made it inside, Promise Of The Real was tearing up the stage with the greatest blues rock noise I've ever heard. It was familiar. In fact, it was in the same vein as Stevie Ray Vaughan, and while it may be heresy to some, I prefer what Lukas Nelson and his band are doing. They ripped through a Dylan cover as well as doing a sparkling version of his dad's recent “A Peaceful Solution”. By then, I was transfixed watching Lukas' guitar fireworks. He pulled out all the stops, including playing with his teeth. What made this special, however, was the quality of the songs. No words that I can write here will express the impact Promise Of The Real made on me. They are simply the best blues-rock band I've seen, and I've seen most that you can name. If they don't quickly rise to the top of the genre, there is no justice. It was only after their set that it dawned on me that frontman Lukas Nelson was the son of tonight's headliner. It then felt somehow fitting that this was the one time I've seen a Willie Nelson show that was stolen by the opener.

Willie Nelson's concerts have always been lovably ragged and relaxed. Since drummer Paul English stopped playing a full-kit in favor of simply keeping the beat on a snare drum, the shows have gotten even looser and more informal. 

Thursday night's show at Athens, Georgia's Classic Center felt more like a family reunion than a concert by one of the most iconic performers in music history. Opening up with the traditional “Whiskey River”, the crowd was in the palm of his hands. There were smiles exchanged between the 76-year old performer and his crowd. The medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away / Crazy / Night Life” was so relaxed, it threatened to derail a few times as Willie's vocal mannerisms nearly overtook the song's melody. Willie also forsook many of the higher-register notes in his infinite search for quirky phrasing. 

For most of the night, it worked, though, on a number like “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, it was hard not to wish that he'd stick with the patterns that we all know and love. Still, who could argue with live performances of such gems as “Good Hearted Woman”, “Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “On The Road Again.” The songs came fast and furious. The last note of one was barely finished before the band was off into the next classic. 

The most beautiful moments of the night were also likely the tightest. Both “Always On My Mind” and “Georgia On My Mind” had couples holding hands and singing along loudly. 



Having seen Willie Nelson several times, it was the non-expected stuff that impressed me. A late show triple-header of “Pick Up The Tempo”, “Pretend I Never Happened” and “Bloody Mary Morning” surprised not only me, but seemed to surprise the band as well. They fumbled through many of the changes, disguising their near-discomfort as well as they could. 

I did miss Family Band stalwart Jody Payne. Even though Willie's son Lukas is a phenomenal guitar player, he's better on his own (as evidenced by his dazzling opening set with his band Promise Of The Real). I was happy that bassist Bee Spears, drummer Paul English, pianist Bobbie Nelson and harmonica player Mickey Raphael are still on the stage with Willie. Mickey's sound is vital to the sound, and it just wouldn't be family without Paul and Bobbie. It was a sweet touch to share the spotlight with Paul for the mini-bio “Me And Paul”. 

Not content to rest on a set list containing one legendary song after another, a cut from the upcoming Country Music album reclaimed “Nobody's Fault But Mine” from Led Zeppelin and came closer to Blind Willie Johnson's original. The show also featured the recent YouTube sensation “Shoeshine Man” as well as a version of “Beer For My Horses” that was far better than the hit recording done as a duet with Toby Keith.

Later, the hand-clapping “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” brought Sunday morning to Thursday night, especially as it segued into “I Saw The Light”. Soon after, Willie wrapped things with “The Party's Over”. The crowd reached out for him as he waved his goodbyes. Willie leaned over the edge of the stage, shaking hands, signing autographs and smiling from ear to ear. 

I was smiling, too.

Chris McKay / concertshots.com