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Trigger Happy

I’m at the Grand Ballroom in the Manhattan Center on Thursday night, loitering about an enjoyably mellow bar scene prior to the Willie Nelson show and sporting my (relatively) new San Francisco Giants cap – a gift bestowed by a close friend. “You like the Giants?” the guy next to me inquires accusingly and with an on-his-way-to-getting-sloshed cadence. “I’m a Rockies fan.” I tell him yeah, I do, and within twenty minutes I’ve gotten his whole run-down: thoughts on Colorado, how long he’s been in Brooklyn, his gig with the planning department, and the place he and the wife have bought upstate. She joins in too, filling in details with pleasant inflection and explaining that she comes from a family of fifteen. (Him again: “her dad’s this great, working class Irish dude, and her mom was still cranking them out at fifty .. crazy.”) We get ready to part and find our seats after the first act and he becomes mildly reflective. “You know, I wouldn’t normally start talking to someone wearing a Giants hat, but that’s the nice thing about coming to a show like this. Anybody who likes Willie has got to be OK ..”

The Red Headed Stranger is in fine form, taking the stage at nine with his traditional Whiskey River opening before segueing in to an eclectically stirring mix including songs by Merle Travis, Kris Kristofferson, Billie Joe Shaver and Ernest Tubb. Word before the show of an upcoming week of canceled dates due to a torn rotator cuff has me wondering how Willie might hold up for this performance. Thirty-two songs and two and half hours later I have my answer, watching the seventy-seven year-old slap every hand in the front row after a rousing encore of I Gotta Get Drunk. His voice is clear and strong and his guitar playing as sharp and inspired as his mind. Oddly, all the pot smoking the man’s done over the last thirty years seems to have had an inverse effect to that on the normal population. Or maybe he just knows his groove that well and sees to never losing his chops by remaining in a state of constant touring. In any case, if this is Willie with a torn rotator cuff, I shudder to imagine what he’s like at full-tilt.

The fans are spent pouring out of the venue and a saucy old broad clutching her $25 Willie doll (he’s still got some IRS bailing-out to do) brags that she’s going to sleep with him “just like I did back in ’69 ..” You can’t pigeonhole Willie Nelson fans as a group. The NYC crowd includes rednecks and buttoned-down Manhattanites, sailors in uniform and bikers in leather, Colorado Rockies types and displaced Giants fans. Many have been dancing in the aisles all night. Waiting on a downtown A Train, I reflect on my friend from the bar and his comment on the shared simpatico sensibility among these people. It brings to mind a story my friend Paul told me about his father, a decidedly conservative guy and a big Willie Nelson fan. He was driving in his car one day when he spotted a bumper sticker on the vehicle in front of him that read “Honk If You Love Willie Nelson.” So he pulled up along side, offered a friendly toot and wave, and the guy flipped him off. I like to think that Willie would dig that story.

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