Willie Nelson & The Family Band
Koka Booth Amphtheatre
July 14, 2017
With temperatures hovering around the hundred-degree mark, eighty-four-year-old William Hugh Nelson causally walked onstage without introduction to kick off his latest appearance at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre. After his longtime drummer, Paul English, helped the singer's sister, Bobbi Nelson, to her seat at the piano, Nelson's Family Band took the stage to raucous applause as the first notes of “Whiskey River”
played and the Texas state flag dropped behind them.
Those who have seen Nelson in concert over the past several years know that they're going to get essentially the same set with slight variations. Nelson and harmonica player Mickey Rafael liven up their instrumental solos by adding in different flairs, perhaps to entertain themselves while working through this timeless set of songs. These small shifts are what make each Nelson concert different when the setlist remains mostly the same. In this performance, both Nelson and Rafael mixed in flashes of a flamenco sound in several songs, an influence I can't recall hearing with such specificity in all my considerable experience of seeing Nelson in concert.
At times, the Family Band expands to include Nelson's sons, Lukas and Micah, and at times guests join Nelson onstage. But in Cary, it was just the core group backing up Nelson, and it moved at a brisk clip. Nelson rightfully minimized his time onstage in the sweltering heat and humidity, which just began to cool ever so slightly as the show began. The first faint breeze of the evening came right as Nelson worked his way into the classic “Nighttime,” which unfortunately coincided with an older woman sitting a few rows in front of me who fainting from the heat.
As the paramedics and Cary police came through the aisles,
concertgoers cleared the walkways and moved out of the way so the woman could be rolled out and the concert could continue. As is custom at a Nelson show, he typically throws a few bandanas into the crowd after briefly wearing them on stage. After removing one, Nelson’s long grey hair blew furiously from the efforts of his acolytes who had gathered onstage to fan the country legend.
Nelson generally works in a few newer songs toward the end of the show. But he chose not to play the latest tune to work its way into his set lists, “Still Not Dead,”
which plays off the frequent rumor of Nelson's demise. Instead, he treated the audience to to what’s become a set staple in the last year or so, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
The conservative Cary crowd reacted with some tepid laughter, with a few colorful exclamations issued from the hardcore fans sprinkled throughout the crowd.
Soon enough, just as the last notes of “I’ll Fly Away" faded, the show was over. Walking away after the roughly one-hour set, I was thankful that the show took place at all. Nelson’s voice seemed sharper and some of the songs slower, but it was still a solid dose of Willie Nelson and the Family Band nonetheless.