Willie Nelson At Massey Hall

  • Willie Nelson
    Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

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By Nick Krewen

In his 80th year, Willie Nelson is on the road again. His latest stop on June 20 in Toronto brought a sold-out crowd to the 2,765-seat Massey Hall on the first day of the 2013 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

Jazz, you say? It's not as implausible as you may think. Nelson has often embraced multiple genres on his recordings, and when it comes to those outside country music, jazz is something of a kindred spirit for the seven-time GRAMMY winner.

The GRAMMY Legend Award recipient's connection to jazz was evident from the very first notes of his opening song, "Funny How Time Slips Away," as Nelson, strumming and picking away at his renowned classical guitar Trigger, shuffled the time signature and reworked the vocal phrasing and melody to turn it into a bluesy narrative. Follow-ups "Crazy" and "Night Life" received similar treatment, with Nelson's Django Reinhardt influence plainly evident in his guitar technique.

With his five-piece backing Family band keeping a steady tempo behind him — remarkably, drummer Paul English's "kit" consisted of a single snare drum on which he employed brushes rather than sticks for the majority of the 90-minute performance — Nelson went where the moment took him, squeezing in notes, rearranging the phrasing and searching for the proper emotion that would help him best deliver the song.

The evening was split between Willie Nelson songwriter and Willie Nelson interpreter as his performances of many of his greatest hits — GRAMMY winners "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," "Always On My Mind" (during which Nelson and his Family band sounded as one) and "Georgia On My Mind" — were masterful renditions of numbers that one of the most celebrated country music outlaws helped popularize during his heyday in the '70s and '80s.

Possessing a commanding voice untarnished by his advancing years, Nelson paid homage to fallen partner Waylon Jennings with sing-along renditions of "Good Hearted Woman" and Ed Bruce's "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys." He also played a trio of selections from the Hank Williams songbook, threw in a Billy Joe Shaver song ("You Asked Me To") and pumped up the humor with his own "Superman" and "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore."

As the last notes of the gospel-fueled "I Saw The Light" faded into the background and Nelson headed to the front of the stage to offer handshakes and sign autographs, it was evident that although time may have slipped away, the bond between this particular performer and his doting audience remains eternal.

To catch Willie Nelson in a city near you, click here for tour dates.

Set List:
"Funny How Time Slips Away"
"Night Life"
"Whiskey River"
"Still Is Still Moving To Me"
"Down Yonder"
"Good Hearted Woman"
"Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" (Ed Bruce cover)
"Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground"
"Always On My Mind"
"On The Road Again"
"Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain"
"Hey Good Lookin'"
"Move It On Over"
"Georgia On My Mind"
"You Asked Me To" (Waylon Jennings cover)
"Let's Face The Music And Dance"
"You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore"
"Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"
"Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die"
"I Saw The Light"

(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto StarTV GuideBillboardCountry Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board's music industry documentary Dream Machine.)

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