My ticket for Willie Nelson's concert at the Hammersmith Apollo last night stated "Doors Open 6.30pm. Start 7.30pm (prompt)". In my mind that meant either the thrilling prospect of a legendary three-hour marathon or that Willie's main priority was getting back to his hotel in time for Newsnight Review. Things commenced on the dot at 8. Willie strolled onto the stage wearing a black Stetson as an enormous Texas flag unfurled behind him and immediately kicked into a swift version of Whiskey River. 90 minutes later he was gone.
I'd expected a more laid-back vibe from a man famed for his daily marijuana habit; perhaps anecdotes from his storied life or introductions to some of the songs. While it was great to hear classics like Me and Paul and City of New Orleans they lacked the resonance I know from the records. Willie Nelson is now 77 and has been playing these songs for decades. As he gets older, his voice weaker and battered guitar ever more knackered it's inevitable that the thought and feeling he once invested in his performances would wane. His solution seems to be playing the songs by rote and getting through as many hits as possible in an hour-and-a-half.
The gig's breakneck pace was set early when three of Willie's classics Crazy, Night Life and Funny How Time Slips Away were breezily dispatched as a medley. These are wonderful, timeless songs you want to wallow in and absorb but Willie rushed through them so quickly and without evident reflection on his brilliant lyrics to make that near impossible. Similarly his attempts to get the audience singing along to the choruses of Beer For My Horses and On The Road Again were somewhat thwarted because we couldn't keep up! Willie's band includes his younger sister Bobbie whose preference for lightning-quick honky-tonk piano rolls hardly helps slow things down.
It's rare at a gig that you're desperate to hear the words, "And now I'd like to play some songs from my new CD" but I was really looking forward to hearing tracks off Willie's latest album Country Music, preferably his ominous new version of Merle Travis' Dark As A Dungeon. We got Man with Blues and the haunting Nobody's Fault But Mine. Perhaps because they're relatively new additions to the set list Willie did seem to take a little more time over them.
The highlight for me came after Willie swapped his cowboy hat for a bandana and played three Hank Williams songs - Jambalaya, Hey Good Lookin' and Move It On Over. There was an energy about these songs that made its way to our seats towards the back of the circle.
With the exception of a bloke wearing an I Love Slayer t-shirt most of the audience looked like Willie Nelson veterans: white-haired couples in their 50s and 60s, some wearing western shirts and bolo ties, who enjoyed hearing the hits no matter how they were performed. There was no encore but before leaving the stage Willie generously shook hands and high-fived the fans in the front rows. The set closed, as I suspect it always does, with The Party's Over. Its weary refrain "Let's call it a night, the party's over, and tomorrow starts the same old thing again" unintentionally summed things up perfectly for me. Willie is on a treadmill. I hope he knows when it's time to get off.
Willie Nelson @ Hammersmith (Songkick) - set list and user reviews
Willie Nelson official site - has a good on the road diary
Willie Nelson @ Edinburgh Playhouse - perceptive review by Graeme Thomson for the Arts Desk
My Night Out With... Willie Nelson - a post by me on the Word magazine site