Willie Nelson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band / May 2, 2006 / Toronto (Air Canada Centre)
Backed by his longtime Family Band, the "Red Headed Stranger" walked onstage to a standing ovation before kicking off with "Whiskey River," the first of some three-dozen songs he would touch on througIt seems somewhat ironic given his history that Willie Nelson would be touring Canadian arenas at the same time many in attendance had just finished filing their income tax returns. Nonetheless, the living legend, who recently celebrated his 73rd birthday, shows no sign of slowing down. After last year's reggae covers album "Countryman," Nelson started 2006 with "You Don't Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker." But it was his massive catalog of hits that allowed the 110-minute set to at times soar, even if it took a little while to get off the ground.
Backed by his longtime Family Band, the "Red Headed Stranger" walked onstage to a standing ovation before kicking off with "Whiskey River," the first of some three-dozen songs he would touch on throughout the evening. With sister Bobbie Nelson to his right on piano and harmonica player Micky Raphael to his left, Nelson said very little early on, acknowledging the crowd with a smile or a wave. Following "Beer for My Horses," the Toby Keith track on which he guested, Nelson went back in time for "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Night Life," presented in a short and sweet medley-like format.
Unlike his peers in country music, Nelson's timbre has not wavered one iota, so that voice heard on albums three or four decades ago is what you get onstage. This was particularly true on "Help Me Make It Through The Night" and the toe-tapping, chugging cover of "Me and Bobby McGee."
Nelson, who threw several red bandanas into the crowd, paced himself early on with slower, blues-tinted revamps of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Blue Skies." Fortunately after an instrumental cover of a Django Reinhardt tune, the singer livened things up with the swaying "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" a song whose "oom pa pa" tone conjured up images of a German beer tent during Oktoberfest.
As the second hour started, Nelson appeared to get stronger with the rousing "On The Road Again" and a gorgeous "You Were Always on My Mind" that he nailed perfectly. From there he brought out the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away." Nelson also gave Hank Williams his due by covering "Jambalaya" and "Hey Good Lookin'."
Stating that this was the part in the show where he'd leave the stage for the encore, Nelson soldiered on with a very pretty and powerful "Pancho & Lefty." And if that wasn't enough, Nelson dedicated the closing "I Saw the Light" to Canadian folk legend Gordon Lightfoot, who was in attendance.
In its own opening set, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band weaved its way through several highlights, including the sing-along signature "Mr. Bojangles" as well as "Fishin' in the Dark," which got some 20-somethings dancing in the aisles. The band also managed to go from a bluegrass cover of the Beatles' "Get Back" to a mainstream country-rock gem in Springsteen's "Cadillac Ranch."