Fresno Beehive

Willie Nelson gives moving performance and history lesson on the last night of the fair

Willie Nelson offered a history lesson during his concert Monday on the closing night of The Big Fresno Fair.

At 86 years old, the country music icon has been performing since the late 1950s. So, most of his catalog for the night, except 2003’s Toby Keith duet “Beer for My Horses,” was written at least 40 years ago.

Then he dipped into some Hank Williams covers. “Move it On Over” was first recorded in 1947.

The hour-long concert was a reminder of a time before pop stars and arena tours when the power of performance wasn’t set by stage production, light design or backing track, but by how well the players on stage could deliver a song.

Nelson, performing with a band that included his sister Bobbie on piano and his son Lukas on guitar, did it masterfully, if not perfectly.

At a time when most music is polished shiny clean, Nelson and his band played loose and ragged. His guitar picking might not be what it once was and some of the smoothness is gone from his voice.

But any weariness only adds depth to the songs like “You Were Always on My Mind.” That’s Nelson’s charm and also his trick. He knows the songs inside and out and transforms them with each performance.

They weren’t the songs as they appeared on vinyl (or remastered CD). They were something arguably better.

The opener

Noah Guthrie opened the show with a 30-minute set of acoustic guitar numbers that alternated between modernist country tunes and Allman Brothers’ style blues, including a cover of “Whipping Post.” (Interesting bit of trivia: Guthrie was a one-time cast member of Glee.)

Notes

Nelson seems to defy genre in terms of his fan base. The audience included country dudes and punk rockers mixing with people who probably don’t listen to anything recorded after 1969.

There was a time before digital video screens or jumbotrons. Concerts were a much different experience, no doubt.

The Paul Paul Theater is a pleasant place to see a concert, with the neon signs and fragrant cinnamon rolls baking nearby.

Set list

  • Whiskey River
  • Still is Still Moving to Me
  • Beer for My Horses
  • Good Hearted Woman
  • Piano interlude by Bobbie Lee Nelson
  • Texas Flood (Lukas Nelson on vocals and guitar)
  • Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
  • Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
  • On the Road Again
  • Always on My Mind
  • Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
  • Hey, Good Lookin’
  • Move it on Over
  • Georgia on My Mind
  • I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train
  • My Favorite Picture
  • It’s Hard to Be Humble
  • Will the Circle be Unbroken?/I’ll Fly Away
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