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Willie Nelson at Target Center is what democracy looks like

Willie Nelson, as a partially materialized phantasmal manifestation of Mickey Raphael lurks behind him.

Willie Nelson, as a partially materialized phantasmal manifestation of Mickey Raphael lurks behind him. Star Tribune

Willie Nelson doesn’t play many sports arenas these days, so his Friday night gig at Target Center had an air of novelty.

Not that it really matters what stage the 86-year-old legend takes. On any given night, at any given casino, amphitheater, or music festival, Willie and his five-piece band put on much the same show as they had the night before. They lurch into motion with “Whiskey River,” toss in a weed number or two, zip though some instrumental showcases and a medley of Hank Williams covers, make sure not to stint on the crowd favorites from Willie’s own songbook, and at last render “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” a moot question. Then they pack it up and move on.

And Willie’s band, the Family, has remained essentially the same since 1973, with “little sister” Bobbie on nimble honky-tonk piano, drummer Paul English rapping on his snare with brushes, and harmonica maestro Mickey Raphael filling the gaps. Before Kevin Smith took over bass duties from the late Bee Spears in 2012, additional percussionist Billy English was the new kid in the group—and he joined in ’83.

Willie’s almost as reluctant to slot a new original song on his setlist as he is to add a new player to his band. In fact, in the interest of presenting himself as the institution he’s indubitably been for decades now, Nelson undersells himself as a continuing creative force. He’s released 16 albums this past decade, with 2018’s Last Man Standing such a solid, casual collection of originals it may soon sound like a classic in retrospect, and this year’s Ride Me Back Home is a worthy successor. Not one of the songs Nelson wrote for those two recent albums was to be heard in Minneapolis on Friday night.

Then again, you don’t become the most widely beloved living American musician (who’s his competition, really, besides Stevie Wonder, maybe, or Dolly Parton?) by throwing hard curves at paying customers, a whole mess of whom certainly didn’t want to go home without hearing “On the Road Again” or “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” or “Always on My Mind.” (He couldn’t possibly have sung “Maybe I didn’t freak you quite as good as I could have” during that last title but at least one other person heard it that way besides me.) And really, why should they have? But would they really have missed “Beer for My Horses,” the unfortunate-to-say-the-least celebration of lynching Willie recorded with Toby Keith 16 years ago and insists on keeping in his set? (Hmm, maybe don’t answer that.)

But don’t let my focus on the familiarity of Friday night’s show register as faint praise. After all, what Willie Nelson offers isn’t predictability, it’s a brilliant consistency—and, at this age, maybe a little reassurance. Anyone (not unrealistically) worried about the old guy’s health would have been happy to hear no audible frailty in his voice. If that relative robustness came at the occasional expense of nuance— still casually conversational on his recordings, on stage Willie’s more declamatory—his vocal ingenuity remains when it comes to tempo, as he sidles in behind the beat with the offhand cunning of a jazz singer.

And lord does this man love a well-crafted song. Willie was more than willing to demonstrate the breadth of his taste by performing three of the covers that fill out Ride Me Back Home. Two were keepers: Guy Clark’s exquisite “My Favorite Picture of You,” which glided along on Bobbie’s piano, and “Maybe I Should've Been Listening," one of those solid, oft-recycled country compositions that no one ever quite made into a major hit. As for Mac Davis’ “Hard to Be Humble,” which was a country radio smash when I was 10 and struck me as corny as hell even then, I’d have personally preferred “Immigrant Eyes,” the more timely of the Clark songs Nelson recorded for his latest album. But Willie engaged the crowd in an enthusiastic singalong to the Davis song anyway, so mileage clearly varies when we’re talking comic narcissism.

And if Willie’s setlist doesn’t vary much, his band’s ramshackle virtuosity offered plenty of spontaneity. When Nelson antagonizes the beat with a brassily resonant low E-string plong on his weathered and heavily amplified Martin acoustic, he’s not so much confident that the band will adjust to his improvisations as he is indifferent. Few bandleaders ask less of their accompanists than Willie Nelson—or do I mean more?

Willie’s solo showcase was, as usual, Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” a performance paradoxical in the way a genius’ tribute to his idol often is: While demonstrating how much he’s borrowed from the French “gypsy jazz” pioneer, Nelson’s playing was also idiosyncratically his own. (Raphael’s harp impeccably mimicked an accordion throughout.) Willie’s guitar dominated the mix, which was rattling at first, but he hardly bullied his bandmates; each player went about his or her business with determined abandon. You could call it a model of democracy in action, and we sure can’t have too many of those right now.

If a basketball arena was occasionally an odd locale for one of Willie and the Family’s homely romps, it could have proven a downright perverse mismatch for the intimate pop-bluegrass of co-headliner Alison Krauss and her band Union Station. That wasn’t at all the case: Krauss’ lovely, large soprano actually seemed to demand a room this big, while retaining the human quality and modest appreciation of melody that sets her apart as a singer. Her performance of “Gentle on My Mind” was a small miracle, summoning all the smoothened lushness that the architects of countrypolitan had sought from orchestras and choirs with nothing more than a bluegrass band’s precise, warm instrumentation.

Krauss doesn’t vary her setlist much either these days, which underscores how distinctively ecumenical her songbook is and how thoroughly she’s made the material she’s borrowed hers. Selections that once seemed audacious given the uniqueness of the originals, like the Foundations’ “Baby Now That I’ve Found You” or Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing at All,” now flaunt a well-worn familiarity. Oh, and Krauss also covered Willie Nelson himself, so don’t be surprised if soon you also think of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” as an Alison Krauss song.

Setlist
Whiskey River
Still Is Still Moving to Me
Beer for My Horses
Good Hearted Woman
Down Under
If You’ve Got the Money I've Got the Time
Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Nuages
Shoeshine Man
It's All Going to Pot
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
On the Road Again
Always on My Mind
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Hey Good Lookin'
Move It on Over
My Favorite Picture of You
Maybe I Should Have Been Listening
It's Hard to Be Humble
Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I'll Fly Away