Two months from his 80th birthday, Willie Nelson is still touring. His two bio-diesel buses parked outside CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center were proof that he was on the road again.
Inside, the legendary performer charmed a sold-out audience, playing one song after another, nearly 30 in all, without ever coming close to exhausting the list of hits he compiled over nearly six decades.
Not surprisingly, age has exacted a toll, even for the ageless Red Headed Stranger. More often than not, the lyrics are spoken, not sung.
The real surprise, though, is how little Nelson has conceded to the passing years. His voice remains strong despite emphysema and collapsed lungs. His guitar playing is masterful despite surgery nearly a decade ago to correct carpal tunnel syndrome. His disposition is bright despite arrests and divorces and a contentious multimillion dollar disagreement with the IRS, long since resolved.
At this point, you attend a Willie Nelson concert as much to be in the presence of a legendary musical genius as to be entertained. It's been two decades since he was enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and more than four years since he received Kennedy Center Honors. So it wasn't all that surprising that he got a standing ovation for merely walking onto the stage.
From Nelson's perspective, it's all about the music. He offers no introductions and relates no anecdotes. It's just one song after another, with barely an introduction of the other seven musicians playing with him.
He might, for example, have mentioned that he wrote Crazy, a song mostly associated with Patsy Cline. In reality, though, when Nelson adapts a song to his unique style, be it Crazy or Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away, it doesn't matter who else recorded it. It is fully reborn.
He began the night with Whisky River, as a king-size Texas flag unfurled as a backdrop. It ended more than 90 minutes later with Superman, performed after a 10-minute break during which Nelson shook hands and autographed programs, caps and bandannas.
In between, Nelson offered up such crowd-pleasers as Always on My Mind, Jambalaya, Hey Good Looking, Georgia On My Mind, The City of New Orleans, To All the Girls I've Loved Before, Will the Circle Be Unbroken and, of course, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.
His songs are so much a part of pop culture that he can sing "Mama," point the mike at the audience, and hear them reply, "Don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys." His On the Road Again elicited spontaneous hand clapping.
If his voice is not what it once was, his guitar playing is as sensational as ever. In addition, Nelson shared the spotlight with Mickey Raphael, his longtime harmonica player, who offered up superb solos on many numbers, including especially Georgia On My Mind and Jambalaya. In addition, Lukas Nelson, 24, Willie's son, gave every indication that the family legacy of distinctive singing and inspired guitar playing will continue for at least one more generation.