It was the first show of 2015, and all others are going to be chasing its trail for the next 364 days.
You pretty much know what you’re going to get in a Willie Nelson and Family show at this point. But Wednesday night’s 70-minute set that launched at midnight with the arrival of Father Time (on a floating armadillo) and Baby New Year stood out, and not just because the guest guitarist at stage left was Billy Gibbons.
It helps that Willie’s sister and pianist Bobbie Nelson was born on New Year’s Day, which makes these occasions all the more festive and requires the standard opener “Whiskey River” to be preceded by a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.” And then there were the red, white and black balloons, pouring from the rafters as the band closed with a bang on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” plus an “I Saw the Light” chaser.
The latter tune wasn’t the only nod to Hank Williams, who died on this day 61 years ago but lives on through the likes of “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Move It On Over,” which Willie delivered in rapid succession just past the show’s halfway mark. Earlier, he’d hollered “Let’s do one for Waylon,” and then launched into two classics he used to sing with the late Waylon Jennings, following “Good Hearted Woman” with “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
We also got signature tunes ancient (“Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again”) and recent (“Beer for My Horses,” “Roll Me Up”), as well as the now-obligatory Willie-classic medley (“Funny How Time Slips Away”/”Crazy”/”Night Life”), and a couple of instrumental numbers. More family and friends came out to sing along on the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” just before the big balloon drop commenced.
Throughout, sister Bobbie, percussion brothers Paul and Billy English, bassist Kevin Smith, harmonica ace Mickey Raphael and ringer guitar-slinger Gibbons provided perfect support. They kept on playing for several more minutes after Willie set down his lovingly worn Trigger acoustic guitar and greeted audience members from the lip of the stage with handshakes and autographs.
Many of those fans had been there for the long haul, arriving early for an opening set by Cilantro Boombox and the revved-up soul sounds of Vintage Trouble, whose showmanship and groove won over the crowd despite the significant difference in genre from the headliner.
Outside, near-freezing weather and the threat of rain had grounded the city’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display. Within the halls of ACL Live, nothing could stop the celebration: It’s 2015, and Willie Nelson and Family are still going strong.