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No Smoke and Mirrors

[whitespace] Willie Nelson plays old favorites with refreshing honesty at Villa Montalvo

By Sarah Quelland

No performer alive today can hold a candle to Willie Nelson. Legendary for classic country favorites like "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" and "On the Road Again," Nelson, who is always on the move, came to town June 20 for a sold-out afternoon concert on the front lawn of Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. Geared toward families celebrating Father's Day, the atmosphere was that of a friendly picnic with everyone relaxing in the warm sunshine, eating barbecue and drinking beer and wine.

Kicking off the concert, as he always seems to, with the rowdy "Whiskey River," Nelson broke into "Stay a Little Longer" and segued into a mesmerizing medley incorporating "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Crazy." Nelson has a wonderful knack for carrying his audience through emotions, skillfully balancing heartbreak with joy. Watching him onstage with little more than his battered guitar and his friends, including his little sister, Bobby Lee, on the piano, is enough to give one chills.

Lyrics like "I don't care what's right or wrong/I won't try to understand/Let the devil take tomorrow/'Cause tonight I need a friend" ("Help Me Make It Through the Night") and "Maybe I didn't hold you all those lonely, lonely times/I guess I never told you I'm so happy that you're mine/Little things I should have said and done/I just never took the time" ("Always On My Mind") may seem fairly simple, but the sheer honesty behind them strikes a deep emotional chord that strongly connects Nelson to his audience.

The singer-songwriter's extensive musical career dates back to 1957. His appeal spans generations, and his songs reach across the musical spectrum from country to rock to jazz and beyond. Nelson (who is now 66) has recorded with Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller and many others. Before establishing himself as a musician in his own right, the prolific songwriter won respect for writing Faron Young's hit "Hello Walls," Billy Walker's hit "Funny How Time Slips Away" and Patsy Cline's classic "Crazy."

At Montalvo, Nelson performed his rendition of Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee," and moved through his versions of "Blue Skies," "Georgia," "All of Me" and "Stardust" and classics like "On the Road Again," "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." He also did a new instrumental and songs from 1998's Teatro, including "I Never Cared for You." "Angel Flying too Close to the Ground," "Seven Spanish Angels," "Pancho and Lefty," "Me and Paul" and many more also made it into his unaffected set.

Part of the beauty of Nelson's live show is that there are no mirrors, no smoke, no costumes, no laser lights and no elaborate sets. Willie Nelson is the attraction. Period. When he steps on stage with his old guitar and sings his timeless songs with his distinctively unusual voice, that's all there is and that's all you need.

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Web extra to the June 24-30, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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