- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

Fresh from a TV special celebrating his 70th birthday with celebrities such as former President Bill Clinton, Willie Nelson inspired a standing ovation merely by his presence at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center Wednesday night. Although picnic coolers and umbrellas outnumbered the 10-gallon hats on the soggy lawn, the rain held off for the duration of the show.

Willie Nelson and Family, touring in advance of next week’s planned release of the live “Willie Nelson and Friends” disc, blazed through more than two hours of Nelson-penned sing-alongs and covers ranging from Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” to Hank Williams’ “Move It on Over.” All provided a comfortable platform for Mr. Nelson’s inimitable, spanking leads on “Trigger,” the Martin classical-style guitar with the extra hole worn through — arguably the most recognizable single acoustic guitar in music today.

The six-piece band includes Mr. Nelson’s sister, Bobbie Nelson, on piano, as well as his psychically connected guitar compadre, Jody Payne. All three traded licks with harmonica virtuoso Mickey Raphael as if they have been playing them all their lives. In the case of Mr. Nelson, he has. He first performed in Abbott, Texas, in 1937 at age 4.

Kicking off with one of his signature numbers, “Whiskey River,” Mr. Nelson toured through 26 songs in the following 70 minutes, running country standards and traditional tunes together in medley fashion and including some of his biggest hits — such as “Crazy,” “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away,” “To All the Girls I’ve Ever Loved Before” and “On the Road Again.”

There were cheers when a giant Texas flag unfurled behind the band when the set started, but there was a roar when an even bigger U.S. flag flew in on the backdrop at the end of “Luckenbach, Texas,” when Mr. Nelson and company reprised “Whiskey River.”

During the second half of the program, Mr. Nelson wove in some of his more obscure and newer songs, including “Still Is Still Moving to Me” and “The Great Divide,” a trio of Hank Williams covers, and encores including Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” — after which he lurched toward the front row, shaking hundreds of hands in the tradition of Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

He returned to center stage to perform two instrumentals, a moving version of “Night and Day” and a Spanish-sounding solo that melted into “I Never Cared for You,” from the critically acclaimed “Teatro” album. He launched into his own old ‘60s standard “I Gotta Get Drunk” and closed with Buck Owens’ “Truck Drivin’ Man,” which could have been the most country-sounding song of the evening.

In an age of politically outspoken performers, Mr. Nelson said little from the stage except to thank the crowd.

Perhaps that is because he is a performing icon, whose own legendary struggles speak for themselves.

He fought the music establishment in Nashville and won — returning to Texas to make music his own way. With Waylon Jennings, he sparked the “outlaw country” movement, which spawned the first alternative music and made him a bigger star than Nashville ever dreamed.

He fought the Internal Revenue Service and lost — literally. The government took his ranch and auctioned his belongings in a $16 million tax dispute, which Mr. Nelson settled for more than $12 million with, in part, royalties from a recording, “Who’ll Buy My Memories.”

Mr. Nelson’s music says it all. His defiant interpretation of America’s 20th-century soundtrack can’t be dismissed as mere pop or country. His guitar style alone turns standards into one-of-a-kind gems. Even if his phrasing and singing have lost a step or two over the years — and some would argue they haven’t — his performances retain the edge Mr. Nelson earned through hard work on his craft and a lifetime onstage.

Mostly, though, Mr. Nelson is a survivor. Taking stock of the cover tunes he performed, most came from artists — Hank Williams, Mr. Van Zandt, Mr. Jennings and Steve Goodman — who have passed on.

Mr. Nelson has said he has no plans to retire. “All I do is play guitar and golf,” he is quoted as saying. “Which do you want me to give up?”

The Washington-based pop-country band Last Train Home opened the show with a well-received short set that featured the title track of the group’s recent recording, “Time and Water.” The band closed with a jamming version of the Bill Monroe classic “Walls of Time,” featuring the mandolin part that might be expected, but also some surprising sax and trumpet solos.

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