SAN FRANCISCO — An eclectic audience turned up at the Fillmore Wednesday to witness country superstar Willie Nelson perform the second of three sold-out nights in the City.
Nelson took to the stage with an assured wave to the crowd and launched into a spirited “Whiskey River.” Nelson was fully engaged and his guitar fingers stayed true. The strings did the talking on second song “Still Is Still Moving To Me.” He raked crunchy, bristly post-structural blues out of his old beat-up acoustic guitar, Trigger, as the band charged along behind him. The guitar phrasing was so jarring it seemed almost disjointed; but Nelson led the band with aplomb, teasing chaos in a neat bit of instrumental navigation.
On hits like “Good-Hearted Woman” and “On The Road Again,” Nelson invited audience participation. For key lines of some choruses, he leaned back and put his right hand up to his ear, as if to say “I can’t hear you.” Sometimes the audience rewarded him by finishing the couplet in a shout-along. At other moments fans fumbled and mumbled – caught up, apparently, in the good-time romp of the rhythm section.
Nelson waved away such trifling miscues. His direct lyrics and conversational singing voice underpinned an arresting performance on “Good-Hearted Woman.” The 86-year-old alertly kept his eyes moving about the room, and the crowd was roused to sing along. Though he appeared tired during brief moments away from the mic, Nelson’s subtle, intricate guitar playing and inviting voice never dimmed.
Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson served as first mate at his dad’s right side. With the full focus of the band behind him, the younger Nelson reached deep for a showcase early on, taking lead vocal and guitar duties on a Stevie-Ray-Vaughan-tinged workout. The smoky, soul-scraping venture into lounge blues centered on a throaty vocal and overdriven guitar leads. Meanwhile the elder Nelson hung back in the groove.
Willie Nelson returned to the microphone with understated charisma, briefly introducing several family members playing in his band. Against the backdrop of a giant Texas flag, he seemed to gather momentum as the show went on. He delivered his vocals with expression and wit and his stringmanship was cooking. His guitar playing on “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” approximated the atmosphere of a Venice canal bistro. During “You Were Always On My Mind” he casually whipped out a stunning chord-based solo in 16 bars.
Someone must have been hungry then, because the band followed with “Jambalaya,” the first of a trio of Hank Williams, Sr. covers. “We’ll have a little fun down on the Bayou,” Nelson suggested in rhyme. After he had warmed fans with the temptation of Cajun cooking, Nelson whirled his cowboy hat into the crowd. As soon as you could look up, he had swapped the hat for a red bandana to frame his iconic braids.
The band trotted gamely along, looking well-practiced and eager for a full-blooded gallop. A swaggering, stolid run-through of “Move It On Over” completed the medley, with Nelson proclaiming himself the “hot dog” and finishing on a joyous dominant seventh chord.
Another highlight came as father and son duked it out over alternating guitar solos. Lukas Nelson’s playing was hard-edged and indebted to Chicago blues. The senior Nelson, by comparison, commanded the fretboard with an uncanny grasp of harmonic relationships.
Rabble-rousing was resumed on Johnny Paycheck tune “I’m The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” featuring strong in-your-face solos from harmonica colorist Mickey Raphael. Nelson narrated, relating a tall tale of robbing liquor stores on his way “back to the good old days.” He then explored both the mellow and uptempo sides of a countrified jurisdiction with two Georgia-inspired tunes played back-to-back.
The show eventually began to wind down, but not without putting some sprightliness into fans’ steps. On saloon shanty “It’s Hard To Be Humble,” Nelson carried the audience through a memorable chorus. The song represented an ironic and self-aware take on self-validation, and displayed Nelson’s wit and ability to sell a concept on a convincing performance.
The set closed with ballad “I’ll Fly Away,” a true display of Nelson’s octave range, and a juiced version of “Roll Me Up.” As a parting shot, Nelson deftly slung his bandana to a lucky fan in the front and walked off stage, eyes twinkling. The rest of the Family carried on through a competent down-home jam session before calling it quits.
For a two-song encore, Willie Nelson and Family were joined on vocals by opening songsmith Tennessee Jet. The singer-songwriter led off the night with a short set of soul-baring ballads and pulsing rockers from his two albums, 2017’s Reata and a 2015 self-titled debut. The Nashville performer accompanies Willie Nelson & Family for three more California dates, including a finale performance Thursday at the Fillmore.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.