It’s a thrilling experience, sitting in the front row at Wembley Arena, just 20 feet away from one of country music’s living legends as he’s performing a song by one of country music’s dead legends (Hank Williams, as you ask). But I’m tapping my boot when I should be putting my paws together, and I catch Willie’s eye. As he gestures towards me, I break into an ‘okay, you win’ grin and join the clapping throng. Before I know it, I’m singing choruses aloud and even embracing the spirit of Our Lord for a trio of gospel numbers.
As I’ve noted before, I’m happy to suspend my atheism for good gospel music – in this case the likes of Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Uncloudy Day. I’m surprised at how good the clapping feels, though, as that’s usually not my bag at all. I’m reminded of Eric Bana in the Hulk movie: “When I can’t fight it any more… when it takes over… when I totally lose control… I like it.”
If this is the start of something big, Willie Nelson will have a lot to answer for.
I’ve never been anywhere near the front for an arena show before, and it’s a curious experience. It doesn’t feel quite like a club gig, as the stage is 6ft high and my view of the band is partially obscured by Bobbie Nelson’s piano – I can’t see drummer Paul English or bassist Bee Spears, or indeed Bobbie. But I have a beautiful view of Willie and the rest of the band, and for all intents and purposes it feels like they’re playing for the first few rows. The rest of the arena – which, I should note, is around two-thirds full – drops away completely when the band are performing.
On the one hand, it’s a little unnerving. I feel exposed, as if I’m being watched – which, judging by the clapping thing, I sometimes am. On the other hand, Willie Nelson and his band are literally a stone’s throw away from me – not perched atop a giant set or spaced out across the stage, but grouped together stage front-centre, as if they were playing a club or theatre. And they sound fantastic. This is my first ever Willie Nelson gig, and going in I have no idea what to expect, but I couldn’t be more pleased with what I’m given.
Accompanied by his long-standing band (most of these guys hooked up with him in the late ’60s or early ’70s), Willie’s in fine voice, and I find myself really taking in what a unique guitarist he is. Playing his famous, battered acoustic (complete with a massive hole in), he looks every inch the lived-in country-music outlaw. When he walks on stage at the beginning, I think he looks a bit frail, but he seems to get younger as the set progresses. His legend alone is enchanting, and the crowd love him. Among the gifts tossed on stage are a straw cowboy hat, which nestles behind a monitor, and a Union Jack bandana, which is caught by the harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. And Willie tosses out a few bandanas of his own.
The set list takes in nearly 50 years’ worth of songs – more if you count the tributes to Hank Williams and standards like Amazing Grace and the aforementioned Circle. Making notes on the way home, I count more than 30 songs – from early Nelson classics such as Night Life, Crazy and Funny How Time Slips Away, through much-adored cuts from the ’70s and ’80s such as opener Whiskey River (cue the unfurling backdrop: a large Texan flag), Me And Paul, On The Road Again and Stardust, to Back To Earth (from the Ryan Adams collaboration Songbird) and a bag of brand new songs. Trust me – no one goes home disappointed.
As a bonus, the merch is quite cheap – programmes for a fiver? It’s like 1987 all over again – and the tickets cost a uniform, and quite reasonable, price: there’s none of this ‘premium price for the best seats’ nonsense that’s infected arena and stadium shows in the last few years.
The only downside of the experience is the temperature in the auditorium. It’s blinkin’ freezing. At one point, the elderly gent sitting next to me rustles in his pocket and pulls out a pair of woolly gloves. Given all the clapping we’re doing, this is cheating on two levels, but I can’t say I’m not jealous.