“I woke up still not dead again today,” Willie Nelson confirmed to a sold-out crowd at San Antonio’s AT&T Center on Thursday night. And like the best of what he has always offered in his life, he said it in song.
“Still Not Dead,” a song Nelson wrote recently to address the occasional “greatly exaggerated” reports of his demise that routinely surface on the internet, will be featured on his new album “God’s Problem Child, due out April 28. On this night, it was the perfect song for the occasion, as some concerns had arisen after Nelson canceled several dates in the Southwest last week.
That came after some January shows were called off because Nelson reportedly had a cold. With Willie soon to turn 84, it’s natural for his fans to be a little concerned for his health.
Thus Thursday’s performance, on the eighth night of the 18-day San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, was a welcome affirmation that Nelson doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere anytime soon. Quite the contrary, in fact: Between us, my guest last night and I have seen Nelson perform dozens of times, stretching back to the 1980s, and we concurred afterward that we’d rarely heard him do a better show.
Sure, some of it was the same comfortable Willie as always: The signature “Whiskey River” guitar-strum opening, the medleys of his most-covered classics and of gospel favorites, the callouts for the crowd to sing along on songs played for his departed compadre Waylon Jennings. If you needed to know that Willie is still his grand old self, everything was there — including his ever-reliable family band, with sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, the English brothers Paul and Billy on percussion and drums, relative newcomer Kevin Smith on upright bass, and harmonica ace Mickey Raphael at his side.
But there were special treats, too. In addition to the aforementioned “Still Not Dead” providing a sneak peek at the upcoming record, Willie also dug way back to his earliest days for “Family Bible,” a song he doesn’t often pull out onstage. And while “Georgia on My Mind” is a staple of almost every Willie set, his sly “speaking of Georgia” segue into Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train” was a less common detour.
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Even when Willie had played for more than an hour to the delight of everyone in the full house, he seemed eager to keep going just a little longer. About this time, my trusty ballpoint ran out of ink, leaving empty indents on my notepad. Yes, Willie outlived my pen; I’ll take that as a good sign.
“Y’all got time for another one before we go?” Willie asked, to a chorus of enthusiastic cheers. He then rattled off not one but three more tunes, including the perfect closer for the locale: Bob Wills’ classic “Home in San Antone.” Austin will always be ground zero of Willie’s world, but on this night, as he sang out “I’ve still got my home in San Antone,” around 18,000 of his fans testified that indeed, he does.
On his bus before the concert, Nelson did an interview for NBC’s “The Today Show” with correspondent Jenna Bush, daughter of former President George W. Bush. No air date for the interview is set yet, according to Nelson’s publicist, Elaine Schock. Nelson’s next Austin-area appearance is his annual Luck Reunion at his ranch west of town on March 16, in the midst of South by Southwest.
Set list:1. Whiskey River 2. Still Is Still Moving to Me 3. Beer for My Horses 4. Good Hearted Woman 5. Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys 6. Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life medley 7. Down Yonder 8. Me & Paul 9. If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time 10. Georgia on My Mind 11. Georgia on a Fast Train 12. Shoeshine Man 13. Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground 14. On the Road Again 15. Always on My Mind 16. It’s All Going to Pot 17. Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die 18. Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away medley 19. Still Not Dead 20. Family Bible 21. The Party’s Over 22. Home in San Antone