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REVIEW: Willie Nelson still smokin’ in Cedar Rapids concert
Son Lukas Nelson proves the circle will remain unbroken
CEDAR RAPIDS — Living history flowed over the riverbank Wednesday night, bathing a sold-out crowd in an hour of hits from Willie Nelson & Family.
The icon and his legacy were planted firmly on the McGrath Amphitheatre stage, bridging past, present and future between the 90-year-old megastar and his brilliant doppelgänger son, Lukas Nelson, 34.
They sat side by side in the spotlight, in front of their fantastic upright bass, percussion, piano and harmonica players. Father and son were wearing cowboy hats and sporting long hair, with Willie’s in braids, of course. They traded guitar and vocal leads with a kind of shorthand gesturing born from decades of playing together.
Lukas even ended his guitar flourish on “Just Outside of Austin” by briefly raising his right hand, as his father so often does when the momentum needs a final fling off the fingertips.
But the best moment came on a heartbreaking cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” which Willie began softly: “Yes I understand/That every life must end/As we sit alone/I know someday we must go.”
As the song progressed, Willie turned his head to wipe his mouth, and the lyrics continued seamlessly, like an unexpected moment of ventriloquism. With my gaze focused on Willie, I hadn’t even noticed that Lukas had taken over, sounding exactly like his dad. I couldn’t tell where one voice ended and the other began on this wistful song.
And in the end, they added a personal touch by tweaking the lyrics just a tad, with Lukas singing directly to his father: “I’ll love you til I die,” and Willie replying: “I’ll meet you on the other side.” Impossible not to tear up hearing that loving exchange between a father in his twilight years and a son whose star continues to rise.
I had the pleasure of reviewing Lukas and his Promise of the Real band performing in a parking lot in Cedar Rapids on June 26, 2010. Disappointed by the small turnout, I wrote:
“Eastern Iowans — you blew it. Too few of you came out to see one of the most exciting young performers with an impeccable pedigree, standing at the threshold of success. All but a couple hundred of you missed your chance to see Nelson and his Promise of the Real bandmates for $3 — the BBQ Roundup's admission price.”
Noting that Lukas had been performing with his dad since age 13, I added: “He has learned his lessons well. He thanked his enthusiastic audience kindly and often, while offering up non-stop waves of nostalgia fueled by the very real promise that his family's legacy will continue in new and exciting ways.”
I knew that would be the last time anyone could pay just $3 to see him perform in Cedar Rapids — or anywhere else. In mid-June, Lukas and his band will be heading to Great Britain for a whirlwind tour, before launching into a U.S. tour in mid-September that wraps up in New York’s Madison Square Garden on Sept. 29. That’s quite a leap from a blistering hot parking lot along Eighth Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids.
Fast-forward 13 years, and father and son displayed their dual fingerpicking prowess in concert. While Willie relied heavily on a speak-singing style, he added just enough familiar melody lines to satisfy his ardent fans. His voice is a little softer, a little more gravely, but in the solo spotlight, offers his own non-stop waves of nostalgia, especially on “Always on My Mind.” Lukas and the band quietly joined him on the second verse, giving the hit a hymn-like quality.
Lest you think the moments were all quiet, the set list packed in plenty of rollicking country, tinged with blues and bluegrass from the moment Willie strolled onstage, sat down and launched into “Whiskey River.”
Lukas can cut loose, too, with his blazing guitar and strong baritone roots soaring into equally marvelous tenor tones, ground up with a hint of gravel.
The perfectly-paced hit paraded bobbed between ballads and kickin’ tempos, through such crowd-pleasers as “Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys,” one of several duets with the audience; the jaunty “On the Road Again”; “Good Hearted Woman,” featuring some playful harmonica; “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” with “I’ll Fly Way” tucked inside; a cover of Mac Davis’ hit, “It’s Hard to Be Humble”; and naturally, “Georgia on My Mind.”
The latter was the perfect follow-up to Lukas’ cheeky “Forget About Georgia,” a lament on the irony of dating a woman named Georgia, while he and his father sing “Georgia on My Mind” in every concert. “I pray I'll forget about Georgia/But a part of me hopes that she'll never forget about me,” he mused. “That is a great lyric,” my metalhead friend said, adding that he’d pay to hear Lukas on his own anytime. High praise, indeed.
The evening’s biggest laugh came with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” accompanied by interesting aromas wafting through the audience.
Don’t bury him yet. Willie remains in his element onstage, and as stood to soak up love from his cheering audience, he tossed his cowboy hat and two headbands into the hands of three lucky fans.
The evening began with a 35-minute set from Georgia native Austin Snell, a Nashville up-and-coming singer/songwriter who brings a raw urgency vocally and emotionally to his songs that deal largely with heartbreak, heartache and his messy home. Fellow country artist Kenny Whitmire added his acoustic guitar and harmonies to the mix that proved to be an ideal lead-in to the headliner.
Snell didn’t have to think twice when asked to hit the road with the living legend.
“If nothing else happens in my career,” he said, “I can tell my kids and grandkids that I opened for Willie Nelson.”
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