Willie Nelson had plenty of reason to celebrate Thursday: He was nominated for five Grammys for songs on his live duets album “Live and Kickin’ ” and his collaboration with Ray Price, “Run That by Me One More Time” (both on Lost Highway). But in time-honored Nelson style, the Grammys didn’t come up even once; rather, Nelson and his band rolled through more than 30 songs in just under two hours, playing with the ease and dignity of a man who’s already won far too many awards to count.
There was nothing too revelatory for those who have seen Nelson in the recent past; two distinct versions of “Whisky River,” per tradition; medleys that wove through Nelson’s own decades-old songbook; and a standard set of covers — including “Me & Bobby McGee” and “Blue Skies” — that, coupled with deceptively loose-feeling arrangements and Nelson’s patented rise-fall vocals, sound both recreational and professional.
But for those who have never seen Nelson before, his show is packed with reminders of his notable legacy. He’s still an ace guitarist, and his solos move fluidly from jazz to flamenco to honky-tonk with subtlety and nuance, with Nelson coaxing the notes from his pickless fingers like a man 40 years younger. He’s also still dedicated to rowdiness; when a security guard tried to usher the show’s sole dancer back to his seat, Nelson rewarded the outlaw by throwing him a smile and one of his bandanas.
These spontaneous moments — Nelson throwing his hands in the air to start a song, a band member’s young son joining in on percussion –are a reminder of Nelson’s status as icon. But listening with eyes closed to “On the Road Again” provides a reminder of something far more important: Nelson’s unparalleled role in the history of American music.