Willie Nelson and Family

Sunset Amphitheatre at Sunset Station, July 21

If it had been awhile since you’d seen Willie live, there was no doubt an anxious adjustment period when he shuffled out from the wings and ground his way through the first few songs. The old Outlaw, who turns 80 in April, is no longer able to lay into “Whiskey River”—his traditional rousing concert-opener—in the same spine-tingling way, and “Still Is Still Moving to Me” simply didn’t have much snap. But maybe it was just Willie who needed the adjusting, as it wasn’t far into this windy, 100-degree night when the gray-headed Stranger and his Smithsonian-bound guitar got it in gear. The turning point was when he slowed it down with “Funny How Time Slips Away,” in which he asks “How am I doin’?” and pauses to pluck a few chords. Despite the reply being a half-century-old lyric, many of us were still relieved to hear it: “Oh, I guess I’m doing fine.” And that was good enough for the mixed bag of an audience, which was treated to a mixed bag of songs for the rest of show: a few more crooner classics (“Crazy,” “Nightlife,” “Georgia”), multi-song tributes to Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, a fun burst of blues (“I’m a Shoeshine Man”) and gospel-fueled finale (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I Saw the Light”). Amid that last flurry he interjected “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a rollicking and irreverent “new gospel song.” It was a flash of that ol’ Willie spunk, and in the end—though the concert could have used more songs from his deep personal inventory—there was enough of that to keep us faithful. ★★★☆☆

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