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Concert Reviews:
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard celebrated shared legacy at the Fox

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Wednesday, October 21, 2015

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DETROIT -- Out in the Fox Theatre lobby you could buy a Willie Nelson For President poster.

And if those attending the show Tuesday night, Oct. 20, had their way, Nelson would win in a landslide, with tourmate Merle Haggard a healthy second in command.

Pancho and Lefty are riding again this fall, celebrating their sixth recorded collaboration -- "Django and Jimmie," which came out in June -- and a longtime friendship as kindred, outlaw spirits of the country music world. Now re-classified as grizzled Americana legends, they were entertaining, if not always successful, on Tuesday, each delivering plenty of career favorites though, interestingly, only delivering one song track "Django and Jimmie," the crowd-pleasing "It's All Going To Pot," among the 43 songs played between them.

The crowd came to see Nelson AND Haggard together, of course, and the duo, playing its second show of the tour after canceling the first three when Nelson fell ill, did not disappoint. Haggard brought on Nelson -- preceded by his famously battered acoustic guitar, which got its own ovation -- for the final four songs of his set -- including an impromptu rendition of "Milk Cow Blues," Townes Van Zant's "Pancho and Lefty" and the Haggard staple "Okie From Muskogee." Those were true duets, whereas Haggard's role on stage during most of Nelson's portion of the show was less well-defined, limited to occasional guitar solos until he started singing backing vocals on the show-closing medley of spiritual favorites such as "I Saw The Light," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away."

That kind of casualness is a hallmark of Nelson's performances these days, however. He and his stripped-down, five-piece took a brisk roll through two dozen songs in just 70 minutes, with Nelson sharing solos with sister Bobbie Nelson on piano and longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael. The songs were quick but not entirely tossed off, often packaged in medleys and sometimes taking a minute to reveal themselves, as in the Dylanesque rendering of "Beer For My Horses."

It's worth noting, too, that Nelson took more time leaving the stage and bidding fans farewell at the end of the show than he did playing any individual song.

But he covered all the necessary bases, whether it was anthems such as "Whiskey River," "On the Road Again" or "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" or more delicate, jazzy blues fare like "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy," "The Night Life" and "Always on My Mind." Nelson, in fact, has adopted the Dylan philosophy that all songs are open to interpretation, particularly the vocal delivery, which led to intriguing treatments of material such as "Me and Paul" and a Hank Williams medley of "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "Hey Good Lookin' " and "Move It On Over." And "roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," which Nelson introduced as "a new gospel song we wrote," became an instant fan favorite -- and was even played over the P.A. after the houselights came up.

Haggard's set was a bit more polished -- as it had to be with a nine-piece band behind him -- but only a bit; there was even a moment when he started a song that wasn't on the set list before being halted by the other players. But his nearly 70 minutes covered plenty of territory, too, from the Texas sing of "Big City" to the weepy strains of "Silver Wings" and the upbeat groove of "Mama Tried." He played fiddle on one instrumental but was more than happy to let the group members pass the musical ball around, even deferring on the guitar solos.

It was all undeniably rough and tumble, but the magnitude of the pair's personalities and their material ultimately won out -- and made the Fox faithful hope for more collaborations between the two in the future.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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