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[whitespace] Willie Nelson Seems Like Salvation

Willie Nelson gave an illuminating performance at the Mountain Winery

By Sarah Quelland

Seeing Willie Nelson perform has become something of a religious experience for me--he is my Jerry Garcia. Part hero, part poet and part outlaw, Willie sings a song like no one else.

His songs have been inextricably woven into the soundtrack of my life, and when he steps onstage with his battered guitar, I can't keep from tearing up with reverence. No other musician casts that kind of spell on me.

Though he seemed to be nursing a cold last Monday (Aug. 27) when he played the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Willie put on a warm, friendly show for the assortment of Winery regulars, Hell's Angels, cowboys and punk rockers that packed the house.

Beaming at the welcoming audience and waving to appreciative members of the crowd, Willie didn't waste time talking. Aside from introducing his band (which includes his little sister Bobbie Nelson on the piano and Jody Payne on guitar), he didn't say much at all. But his expressive songs speak volumes and his beautiful union of lyric and music carry more feeling than words alone. It's impossible not to get caught up in the magic of his charismatic, unassuming performances.

With no opening act, Willie (and his band) was the sole attraction and, despite feeling under the weather, he packed nearly 40 songs into his extended set. Nobody minded when he did "Whiskey River" twice. Willie has a real knack for pacing his concerts by staggering slow songs with rowdy ones and expertly cultivating new material by seeding it with established classics, traditional tunes and blues and jazz standards.

At Monday's show, he played just about everything anybody could have asked for (though if he'd been taking requests, I would have given a shout out for "Me and Paul," "Hands on the Wheel" or "A Horse Called Music"), while introducing the audience to songs from his recent kid-friendly album Rainbow Connection ("Rainbow Connection," "The Thirty-Third of August" and "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way") and a lovely song from his forthcoming album, The Great Divide, titled "Lost in the Great Divide," on which he assures, "You asked me if I'd leave, and I said never, and that's still right."

Though Willie is a prolific songwriter himself, much of the material he's made famous was written by others. Paying tribute to musicians and friends he respects, Willie broke into a spirited series of Hank Williams Sr. tunes, including "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "Hey, Good-Looking" and "Move It on Over."

He also covered Rodney Crowell's 1981 hit "'Til I Gain Control Again," and guitarist Payne took on lead vocals for Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues."

Willie skipped over the customary gospel section of his show to make room for other selections from his seemingly infinite songbook, including "Still Is Still Moving to Me," "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," "Milk Cow Blues," "The Gypsy" and many more.

It's no surprise that Willie appeals to people from all walks of life. With no sense of pretense about him, his honest songs are profound in their simplicity. Whether sharing a heartbreak ("Always on My Mind," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground") raising a ruckus ("Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "On the Road Again") or telling a story rooted in the history of the Old West ("Seven Spanish Angels," "Pancho and Lefty"), Willie's grizzly voice and unmistakable guitar playing resonate with the wisdom of life's experiences.

While the smiling crowd sat rapt with attention, I gazed away from the stage. An uncommonly warm wind blew through the steep mountain-top venue, a remote location high enough in the hills that looking down on the lights of the busy city beneath offers the illusion that troubles are a million miles away. The air was alive with the buzzing of insects, their own music complementing Willie's perfectly. That kind of peace isn't easy to come by, and moments like those are meant to be cherished, just like Willie's comforting concerts. My heroes have always been cowboys, indeed.

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Web extra to the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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