By Jake Zuckerman.
Standing tough at 80 years old, Willie Nelson proved he can still rock when he played Ravinia Festival Sunday night.
After an opening performance by Nelson’s son Lukas Autry, of a newer country sound, Beatles covers, and a mesmerizing Hendrix-esque guitar solo played by his teeth, Autry (stage name POTR) later came on to play with Nelson and The Family.
While most of ‘The Family’ is not biological, they may as well be with Nelson referring to each of them as brother or sister. The band consisted of Nelson on lead guitar and vocals, Autry on electric guitar, Paul English on drums, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Kevin Smith on the standup bass, and Nelson’s biological sister Bobbie Lee Nelson on piano.
Although he may be old, a man who’s played with the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson was sure to compensate for his age in decades of musical wisdom. Taking the stage in his signature red bandana and red, white, and blue wrap, with two gray ponytails ending just over his acoustic guitar, a frailer than usual Nelson was sure to play whatever was left of his heart out for an hour and a half.
He opened the set with some of his outlaw country classics, such as Whiskey River and Beer For My Horses. While he made great use of his iconic fragmented classical guitar (it looks even older than he does) sometimes giving it a soft piano like sound, or other times a more bluesy twang, it sounded like he has lost most of his vocal abilities, presumably due to the years of the habitual marijuana smoking for which he is known.
Some artists tour in promotion of a new album, making sure to play it end to end at every live show, but Nelson strayed nowhere near that cliché. He came to play the best music he could and ended up playing songs from as far back as 1964, including a litany of covers ranging from Waylon Jennings to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Hank Williams Sr., Ed Bruce, The Animals, Patsy Cline, Tom T. Hall, and Ray Charles.
“Let’s play one for Waylon!” said Nelson before delving into Waylon Jennings’ Good Hearted Woman. He then slipped into the jukebox classic, Patsy Cline’s Crazy (Nelson has writing credits on the song), although the high notes were well beyond his vocal range, and he was arguably uttering most of the lyrics.
Reverting to his outlaw country roots, Nelson sang about getting busted in Laredo, not being allowed to board a plane in Milwaukee, and other illicit exploits across the country in his classic Me & Pa. He sang, “we got our education, in the cities of the nation, me and pa.”
While 12 of the 22 songs Nelson played were covers, that didn’t stop him from playing his classic crowd pleasers such as Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys, On The Road Again, Angel Flying To Close To The Ground, and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.
Nelson wrapped the set up with a raspy voiced monotone cover of Ray Charles’ Georgia On My Mind but redeemed himself with the classic Christian hymn turned folk anthem I’ll Fly Away, his new single Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, and closing with a cover of Hank Williams’ gospel classic, I Saw The Light.
While his voice may not have been what it used to be, Nelson still managed to leave the crowd in awe of the performance. His welcoming and personable aura even incited one fan, Marie Zavolie of Glendale Heights to write lyrics to a song, of which she gave to a security guard in the hopes it reaches the country legend.
“He was so great,” said Zavolie, “he’s one hell of a man. Before I die I have to hear him sing my lyrics.”
Longtime fan of the band, Leslie Rackner, had similar sentiments towards the set.
“He can’t sing like he used to but he sure can play,” she said, “it’s amazing to see an 80 year old man perform like that.”