Willie Nelson & Family Bring Texas Music To Santa Clarita, Pack The PAC
Feature review of first SCV concert by Nelson’s ‘Band of Brothers & Sisters & Whatever’ at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons
American music legend Willie Nelson & Family brought their signature Texas sound to the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons Saturday night, delivering a roughly 90-minute set of perennial Nelson originals, classic covers and a couple newer songs for a sold-out audience.
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Nelson, who turns 81 on April 29, was in good spirits, with a friendly, mile-wide grin. His distinctly reedy voice was strong, and his fingers were facile on the frets of his road-thrashed but trusty 1969 Martin N20 acoustic guitar, nicknamed Trigger.
Throughout the 27-song set, Nelson characteristically sang around the beat and played his jazzy, mostly improvised solos nearly as well as he did when this reviewer first saw him perform in Austin in 1975, at his third annual Fourth of July Picnic. After another 39 years on the road, he has mellowed, as one would certainly expect, but his celebrated chops as a guitarist remain impressive.
You could call Santa Clarita a three-bandana show. That’s how many headbands Nelson chucked out into the audience for lucky fans in the rows close to left, right and center stage.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real featuring Nelson’s twentysomething sons Lukas and Micah opened the concert.
Fronted by Lukas on lead vocals and guitar with Micah on percussion, P.O.T.R. (as they’re known to fans) performed a powerful 40-minute set of bluesy-rock originals from the band’s four indie CDs (three studio, the most recent live — “Live Endings” from 2012).
Country Star to Outlaw Icon: A Bit of Willie Background for Context
Originally from Abbott, Texas, Nelson has lived back in the Lone Star state since the early 1970s. He had fled the creative constraints of the country music establishment in Nashville, where he had earned his first fame and fortune as a songwriter and recording artist in the early ‘60s.
These events are at the core of his original repertoire, which spans more than half a century, and his celebrated reputation as a country music outlaw and unapologetic marijuana advocate.
Nelson has more than 100 albums in his catalog, on Liberty, RCA, Atlantic, Columbia, Rhino and a slew of indie labels. He has earned seven Grammy awards, the first for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” in 1976 (from ‘75’s “Red-Headed Stranger,” his first album for Columbia and breakthrough to the big-time) and the most recent for “Lost Highway” (a duet with his former boss, Ray Price) in 2007. Nelson picked up the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
Recognized as an American icon by fans ranging from rednecks to royalty around the world, Nelson was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1998. He’s also appeared in films like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “The Electric Horseman,” and is a best-selling author.
His colorful history is well documented, probably most completely by his books including “Willie: An Autobiography” (with Bud Shrake; Simon & Schuster, 1988) and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road” (with illustrations by son Micah and foreword by Kinky Friedman, another colorful Texan; William Morrow, 2012).
Also essential are Texas Monthly writer and Stevie Ray Vaughan biographer Joe Nick Patoski’s award-winning biography “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” (Little, Brown, 2008), and, of course, Nelson’s own website. A short bio is included in a PAC preview by this writer.
The Family that Plays Together: The Santa Clarita Lineups
Back at the 950-seat Santa Clarita PAC, Nelson shared the stage with his “little sister” Bobbie (age 83), on her baby grand piano, drummer-percussionist Paul English (also in his early 80s) and harmonica master Mickey Raphael (62), who have all been touring and recording as members of the Family band for 40-plus years.
Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah played electric guitar and percussion, respectively, in their father’s band.
Rounding out the Family lineup were electric and upright bassist Kevin Smith (who joined in 2011 after longtime member Bee Spears died) and drummer/percussionist Billy English, Paul’s brother, who played most of the show using brushes on a kit stripped down to a snare drum. Nelson’s daughter Amy joined the Family to harmonize on the closing gospel medley.
And few in the audience seemed to notice, but actor-drummer John Stamos, a friend of Lukas’s, joined the band on percussion for the medley.
Sons Lukas & Micah Playing Musical Opening Acts on ‘To All the Girls...’ Tour
Along with Lukas and Micah Nelson, Promise of the Real features bassist Corey McCormick, drummer Anthony LoGerfo and percussionist Tato Melgar.
Micah Nelson also leads his own band, Insects vs. Robots, an experimental psychedelic outfit that opened his dad’s concert at The Wiltern in Los Angeles last Wednesday night, and includes Lukas as well.
The sons’ bands, based in Venice, Calif., and Maui, Hawaii, are getting valuable exposure as they alternate the opening slot on the current leg of an extended tour supporting Willie’s latest album, “To All the Girls...,” released by Legacy/Sony in October.
The collection includes warm and tender (and occasionally rollicking) duets with equally esteemed female vocalists, among them Wynona Judd, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Roseanne Cash, Mavis Staples, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus, Carrie Underwood, Shelby Lynne and more.
On this Western swing, along with the Santa Clarita date, Nelson’s “Rollin’ Smoke Revue” (four huge tour buses and a full-length semi-trailer full of equipment) rolled into Riverside April 1, L.A. April 2, and San Diego April 4. After Santa Clarita, Nelson and family headed north to Davis (April 9), Carmel (April 10) and Berkeley (April 11).
Willie Nelson & Family’s Santa Clarita Set
It’s impossible to pack all of Nelson’s greatest hits and fan favorites into a 90-minute show, or even the two-hour-plus marathons the Family band played in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
But his set list, which hasn’t changed all that much since those years but has also mellowed out with time, nicely covered many of his career highlights in his 27 songs Saturday night in Santa Clarita
As ever, Nelson and Family opened with Johnny Bush’s immortal “Whiskey River,” and closed an hour and a half later with a brace of up-tempo gospel tunes, including a new original (OK, 2010; it’s all relative) titled “Roll Me Up (and Smoke Me When I Die).”
Among the best moments for this reviewer along the way:
* Nelson’s classic medley of three of his earliest songwriting hits first recorded by others — “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Billy Walker, 1961), “Crazy” Patsy Cline (1962) and “Night Life” (Ray Price (1963). Nelson recorded his own versions of “Funny...” and “Crazy” for his 1962 debut album for Liberty, “...And Then I Wrote,” and the medley evolved onstage over the next several years. Nelson finally recorded the medley for his 1976 album “The Sound in Your Mind” on Columbia.
* ”Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grown Up to be Cowboys” — Country songwriter Ed Bruce and his wife Patsy wrote it, and he had a minor hit with it in early 1976. Waylon Jennings and Willie recorded it for their “Waylon & Willie” album, out on RCA in 1978. The single version hit No. 1 on the country charts that year, nearly made the pop Top 40, and earned a Grammy for the duo.
* ”Texas Flood” — Larry Davis wrote and recorded the first version of this slow blues classic for the seminal Duke label in Houston in 1958. It’s better known as the title track of Austin blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1983 debut album, which Vaughan recorded at Jackson Browne’s studio in Los Angles because JB was an early SRV fan.
So were young Lukas and Micah Nelson, who, like countless other kids around the world, cut their teeth on Vaughan’s riffs and solos, which in turn were deeply influenced by guitarists like Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix.
On the current leg of Willie’s tour, “Texas Flood” is once again Lukas’s spotlight number during his dad’s set, and members of POTR joined him onstage to back him up (Micah played drums; pictured). Lukas wailed a soulful vocal, at a pitch not unlike his dad’s, and ripped a lead guitar solo so intense that even Willie, who’s no doubt heard it before, could only stand by and watch like a proud pop, nodding his head in affirmation.
* ”Nuages” — After “Always on My Mind,” Nelson extended the melancholy mood a bit with a solo instrumental version of what sounded like Django Reinhardt's "Nuages." (The gypsy-jazz guitarist from the 1930s was a huge influence on Willie, Les Paul, and millions of others. I have a hunch "Nuages" may have also inspired "Melancholy Serenade," the theme from “The Jackie Gleason Show”) Willie played some very intricate, jazzy improvised runs, a brilliant display of technique and soul that earned a healthy round of applause. This unintroduced interlude was not included in his Wiltern set.
* ”Band of Brothers & Sisters & Whatever” — A new song celebrating the life Nelson’s living now, and introduced as the title track of his next album for Legacy/Sony, which would be his fourth in about two years. Similar in musical style to “Mammas...” the song celebrates the family that’s “on a mission to break all the rules.” Bulls-eye.
* Closing gospel medley: “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” “Roll Me Up (and Smoke Me When I Die),” “I Saw the Light” — Sons Lukas and Micah and daughter Amy (who fronts her own outfit called Folk Uke) walked up to share a mike at center stage as Willie launched into “...Circle” to start wrapping up the show. John Stamos slid over to a spot behind the percussion array, and sat in for the medley.
“...Circle” goes back to music Nelson heard growing up in Texas. A.P. Carter, patriarch of The Carter Family, adapted and recorded the early 1900s hymn in 1928, and it became a country gospel staple, covered many times. In the early 1970s, matriarch “Mother” Maybelle Carter recorded a new version with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for the group’s legendary triple album titled after the song, introducing it to a new generation. Nelson recorded it for “The Troublemaker,” his first gospel album, in 1976.
People were on their feet by this time at most of the few dozen Willie Nelson & Family concerts this writer has attended in Texas, Nashville and up and down the California coast. But the Santa Clarita PAC audience skewed a little older and was obviously more reserved. As venues go, the PAC is a bit more formal than others, and perhaps less tolerant of dancing in the aisles.
Nelson gamely prompted the crowd to clap along, but they didn’t keep it up too long.
Undaunted, he next introduced “a new gospel song,” and the band broke into “Roll Me Up (and Smoke Me When I’m Gone), a similarly up-tempo tune he co-wrote with four other guys. He recorded it for his 2012 album “Heroes,” with Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson.
The tune’s title also graces Nelson’s latest book, as previously mentioned.
While perhaps a hoot elsewhere, the song’s unabashed celebration of a pro-pot lifestyle did not seem to go over too big in Santa Clarita, a conservative community that’s gone to great lengths to fight drugs of all kinds in the past few years.
Nelson soon redeemed himself with the locals, though, reconnecting with “I Saw the Light,” country godfather Hank Williams’ 1948 country gospel rave-up. By song’s end, as Willie unhitched Trigger and waved goodbye and the band vamped him offstage, most of the PAC audience was finally on its feet, applauding enthusiastically, if not wildly.
“The first thing I noticed during this show was that the crowd was a lot older, so the energy level was low,” Lukas observed afterward on his blog. ”During these times I like to focus on getting my notes exactly right and connecting with [his father’s] band.”
Set List for Willie Nelson & Family in Santa Clarita
Here’s the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center set list (* = also performed at The Wiltern, mostly in same order):
1). *Whiskey River
2). *Still is Still Moving to Me
3). *Beer for My Horses
4). *Good-Hearted Woman
5). *Funny How Time Slips Away>Crazy>Night Life
6). *Down Yonder
7). *Me & Paul
8). Help Me Make it Through the Night
9). If You’ve Got the Money, Honey (I’ve Got the Time)
10). *Texas Flood
11). *Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grown Up to be Cowboys
12). *Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
13). *On the Road Again
14). *Always on My Mind
17). *Hey, Good Lookin’
18). *Move it on Over
19). *Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
20). *Georgia on My Mind
21). Been to Georgia on a Fast Train
22). Shoeshine Man
23). To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before
24). *Band of Brothers & Sisters & Whatever
25). *Will the Circle be Unbroken
26). *Roll Me Up (& Smoke Me When I Die)
27). *I Saw the Light
Promise of the Real Set Shows Real Promise
Promise of the Real members McCormick, LoGerfo and Melgar, along with the Nelson brothers, have developed a hard-edged alternative rock sound rooted in the blues since forming about five years ago.
Highlights of their opening set included “Love Yourself,” “Find Yourself,” “No Place to Fly,” “Don’t Want to Go Home” and the closing song, “Four Letter Word” (as in, “Forever is a four-letter word...”).
On the rocking “Don’t Want to Go Home,” Lukas played a mean electric guitar solo that included several bars played with — yep, his teeth. He was channeling Jimi Hendrix channeling Stevie Ray Vaughan and adding his own grit and grease to his sound.
Mickey Raphael joined the fray for the closing blues-rocker, blowing a bluesy harmonica solo at midpoint and trading off short solos with Lukas at the end. Promise of the Real is a group to watch, especially in a more rock ‘n’ roll context.
Sound System ‘Much Better’ in Santa Clarita
At April 2's Willie Nelson & Family concert at The Wiltern, a beautiful Deco-era venue at Wilshire and Western in L.A., the sound was lousy — distorted highs, muddy midrange and not much bottom. By contrast, the sound quality at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center — a venue about the same size — was vastly superior. The PAC mix sounded natural, each voice and instrument distinct and well balanced to these ears.
A brief conversation with Bobby, Nelson’s soundboard engineer, in the sound booth after the PAC show, confirmed what my ears thought.
“The Wiltern is really bad,” he said. “It’s much better here.”
Nelson on PAC’s ‘Get’ List for almost a Decade
Saturday night’s show marked Willie Nelson’s first concert in the Santa Clarita Valley. But he has been on the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center’s booking wish list since it opened more than nine years ago, COC Chancellor Dianne G. Van Hook said at a pre-concert reception for about 75 COC officials and local business and political leaders.
Introduced to a podium by new PAC Executive Director Evy Warshawski, Van Hook credited Warshawski for finally making it happen.
“When we first opened the PAC, we attempted to get Willie Nelson out here, and we tried a couple of other times,” Van Hook said. “Even though he was not on the program for the year, I was absolutely thrilled — I don't know how she did it, and I don't want to know — that Evy could get him to come for this special evening. This has been an amazing season of shows and as we wind down 2013-14, it is exciting to end with one of the biggest names in music.”
As if on cue, during Van Hook’s remarks, Nelson’s private tour bus arrived on the campus (the other three were already parked behind the venue). As she spoke, the massive vehicle pulled up in the adjacent backstage driveway, visible to the reception-goers through the window behind her.
Evy Warshawski, executive director of the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons, introduces COC Chancellor Dianne Van Hook.
Later, when KHTS asked Warshawski how she finally got Nelson to the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center, she smiled and simply said, “Perseverance.”
Pressed for details, she smiled again: “Oh, yes, it’s a great story, but I’m saving it for my memoirs.”
Van Hook, Fortine & Kellar’s Willie Encounter
Warshawski was one of the few Santa Claritans who actually got to meet and greet Nelson backstage just before he went on: Van Hook, founding COC Trustee Bruce Fortine and City Councilman Bob Kellar were the other three.
“We had an opportunity to shake his hand and welcome him to Santa Clarita, and get our picture taken with him,” Kellar told KHTS just after the show. “He wasn't terribly talkative, but had a big smile on his face and thanked us. We only had probably 45 seconds with him. That was it. Pretty amazing.”
“I think Willie Nelson’s an icon in the music industry, and it’s a real honor to have him here,” Van Hook said. “I grew up with him, singing his songs through the different decades ... I think probably ‘On the Road Again’ is one of my very favorites, because I moved a lot as a kid and we were always on the road again.”
Speaking about wrapping up the PAC’s ninth season with a superstar, we asked for a clue as to who will be headliners for the 2014-2015 season, which begins Oct. 15.
“I have the list, but I can’t give it to you,” Van Hook said, laughing. “That’s a good try. I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t tried to pry that out of me.”
Photos: Stephen K. Peeples except album and book covers and POTR banner.
Special thanks to "Lone Star" Jerry Retzloff, Cheryl Albert, Elaine Shock Gilmore and Paige Hagen for their invaluable assistance.
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