Review: Willie Nelson takes on mortality with grace, humor

11:10 PM, Jun 22, 2013

Willie Nelson and his guitar, Trigger, performed to a sold-out crowd at Eastman Theatre on Day 2 of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)/


Written By Leah Stacy

As Willie Nelson strolled onstage, and picked up his battered guitar, Trigger, a giant Texas flag unrolled behind the band like a subliminal message — and the audience responded.

More coverage: Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival ‘13

And so it went that Nelson had a standing ovation before he even made a sound during his sold out headline show at Eastman Theatre on Day 2 of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.

At 80 years old, the Red Headed Stranger is no longer a redhead. For the past few decades, he’s been sporting unkempt white whiskers and long gray braids beneath 10 gallon hats and kerchiefs rolled into bandanas.

But there’s something refreshing about the way this American icon is embracing his mortality. The hands that stroke the worn body of Trigger are strong again after carpal tunnel surgery. During the recovery period, Nelson took the opportunity to write a few songs about his age, the ironic “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” and “Superman,” which is a sly comment on his past run-ins with the law: “Too many pain pills/Too much pot/Trying to be/Something I’m not … Superman.”

A Texas native (and now, Hawaiian transplant), Nelson possesses a tranquility and charm on stage that comes all-too-easily to a southern man. During the show, he picked out the ladies in the front row and aimed four of his bright red bandanas their way. As a trio of women fawned and fought over one of the prizes, ol’ Shotgun Willie had a knowing smile.

Nelson brought his “Family,” a six-member band, which followed Nelson’s rambling lead through old favorites like “Beer for My Horses,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Always on My Mind.” On the piano was Nelson’s sister, Bobbie Lee Nelson, whom Nelson referred to as “Little Shish Kabob.” She kept her rhinestone-lined cowboy hat tipped down for most of the show, but her spiky heels were a-tappin’ and her fingers drove the night’s rhythm. Also joining the band was Nelson’s daughter, Amy Lynn, who operated a video camera until the very end of the show, when she joined her father for a mash-up of gospel songs.

The band had fun with the last “gospel tune,” recently penned by Nelson, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

A genuine gentleman who isn’t too big for his britches, Nelson stays after each show (yes, even this one) to sign as many posters, T-shirts, CDs and hands as he can. The band played background music.

Between his near-flawless performance and a sneak peek of brand new music, it doesn’t appear that Nelson is retiring anytime soon.

(P.S. Dear Willie, sorry I couldn’t stay to shake your hand. Had a deadline. Thanks for the bandana and the wink. Sincerely, a fellow Red Headed Stranger.)