If anyone has a claim to that overused, frequently undeserved accolade, legend, Willie Nelson does.
The composer of “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Pretty Paper,” all hits respectively for Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Faron Young and Roy Orbison, Nelson is also an interpreter whose 1975 rendition of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” belatedly made him a pop and country star.
A singer, songwriter and master guitarist, Nelson turns 80 on April 30. True to form, he’s releasing a new album April 15 and playing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival May 3.
Tuesday night at the sold-out, densely filled Varsity Theatre, Nelson, in a show billed as Willie Nelson and Family, ran through his golden repertoire and previewed his upcoming album, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Nelson and his band, featuring his piano-playing little sister, Bobbie, sound-alike son, Lukas, plus longtime musical cohorts drummer Paul English and harmonica man Mickey Raphael, performed for more than 90 minutes, till just past 11 p.m.
Most people stayed to the end even though many of them were of the age they might rather be sitting than standing for, counting opening act Lukas Nelson and the intermission, three hours.
Honky-tonk hero Nelson opened with his rousing signature song, “Whiskey River.” It’s the sort of number that normally would get people clapping their hands and stomping their feet.
But the more common sight Tuesday night was hands held high as concertgoers pointed cellphone cameras to the stage. There were so many cellphones pointed at Nelson that many amateur photographers may well have gotten more shots of the back of other people’s hands and cellphones than the star of the show.
Nelson nonetheless was a crowd pleaser, leading the audience in singalongs with “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Good Hearted Woman” (dedicated to his late friend Waylon Jennings), his hit 2003 duet with Toby Keith, “Beer For My Horses,” and his touring anthem, “On the Road Again.”
Selections from his new album, including a bossa nova version of the album’s title song, Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and a new take on Carl Perkins’ rockabilly standard “Matchbox,” showed that Nelson hasn’t stopped his winning, genre-hopping ways. He’s always been much more than a country singer.
Nelson showed another example of his range through his frequent, free-wheeling guitar solos. Performing with the acoustic, nylon-string instrument he’s been playing for years, he’s not only worn his guitar’s finish away, he’s worn a large patch of wood away, too.
Nelson stepped back to give his sister, Bobbie, and son, Lukas, solo spots. Bobbie Nelson plays a charming, old-fashioned piano style that’s apparently completely lacking in bass notes. Lukas Nelson channeled another Texas music star, Stevie Ray Vaughan, with his vocal and electric guitar performance of the late singer-guitarist’s “Texas Flood.” And a special guest, accordion player Steve Riley of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys fame, joined the group in such apropos songs as Hank Williams’ Louisiana-inspired “Jambalaya.”
The show’s grand finale featured a country-gospel set, including “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and another Williams song, “I Saw the Light.” Leave it to Nelson, though, to include “Roll Me Up (and Smoke Me When I Die),” in his gospel set.