There is likely nowhere in Philadelphia better suited to host Willie Nelson than the Mann Center — if not because nothing says summer like sitting on a blanket under the stars listening to “On the Road Again,” then because the smell of weed just doesn’t waft so discreetly in, say, the Academy of Music as it does from the Mann’s, er, grass seating.
And for the Friday night Willie show, there was weed, of course, as well as more than your average number of beards, braids and boots per capita in Philly. It was, in other words, exactly what you’d expect from a Willie Nelson show in many ways.
What wasn’t as expected (at least by me) was how much overall enthusiasm there was for Willie’s tour partners, Alison Krauss and the Union Station. Not that the excitement isn’t justified — Krauss’s voice is as enchanting as ever, and the band plays easily some of the best, most accessible bluegrass out there. It was a stage full of stars.
But who knew that the same crowd who would later scream a raucous chorus of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” would also be so happy to get misty over Krauss’s sweet, easy-listening country ballads? It’s a testament to that voice.
Krauss’s singing partner and guitarist, the popular Dan Tyminsky (a.k.a. the singing voice of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou) is no slouch, either: He actually sounds like the Appalachians -- a strong, plaintive voice that’s all peaks and valleys. If folks didn’t arrive in the mood for a little country, they were definitely there by the time Willie ambled on the stage, just as a giant Texas flag unfurled behind him.
Because his music is timeless and his fanbase is diverse, It’s easy to forget that Willie Nelson is a man creeping into his ninth decade on this earth. No disrespect here, but you remember it, a bit, when he sings: That voice — warm, full, so Willie — is still there, but these days, the lyrics are part-sung, part-spoken.
He’s still playing lead guitar, and would sometimes sing/speak whole lines ahead of the beat, then play, and so on; it reminded you, as one clever friend remarked, of shoes in the dryer. (Bum, bum, bum, BA-DUM ….. bum, bum, bum, BA-DUM, BA-DUM.) Though to be fair, the unexpected syncopation might just be owed to the fact that Willie has been playing these songs for decades … maybe he just wants to change it up a little?
In any case, he’s still Willie, and that’s what matters. His voice — speaking or singing — still evokes the same sense of nostalgia, of joviality, of a desire (if only for a minute) to take yourself back home to your place down South (whether you even have a home down South or not.) Surely life is simpler — and better — there. At least in Willie’s world.
As the show came to a close, Willie was joined on stage by Krauss, Union Station, and all the openers for a couple old hymns ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I’ll Fly Away") that had the whole place on its feet, and clapping along. It felt a bit like a summer tent revival (in a good way), and again, it’s hard to imagine a better venue for it than the Mann: all open-air and sprawling lawns and gentle wisps of pot smoke blowing in the breeze.