Over the years, I have road tripped with my family across the United States in exploration of America's backcountry, usually with the intent of reaching a remote cabin in the Northwoods of Minnesota. Through those travels, I have become quite familiar with crisscrossing highways; the off-the-beaten path, bumpy detour roads; and of course, the body-destroying fast food joints on every corner. And there has always been a soundtrack – a kind that rings true to my road-tripping reality. Because every time we returned to the car after a bathroom break or stay at a cheap motel, we would head down the road all singing “On the Road Again.” At times it just seemed appropriate, after days in the car and the loopy-ness that comes with.
The song served another function – for me, it helped put Willie Nelson on my musical map. As country singer/songwriter and folk hero of multiple generations, Nelson is a man of wisdom, family and Americana who has ultimately become the singer of the soundtrack for our nation.
The OC Fair's Pacific Amphitheatre kicked off its summer concert series on July 13 with the legendary Willie Nelson & Family putting on a familial show befitting of the fair's theme of “Home Sweet Home.” The band is made up of Nelson's sister, Bobbi, two sons – Lukas on lead guitar and Jacob Micah on percussion and backup vocals – Kevin Smith on bass as well as old friends Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Billy English – brother to legendary drummer Paul English. And this family band knows how to make a hot, humid summer night in the OC feel like the Deep South.
Nearing his 80th birthday, Nelson still has the enthusiasm of a young musician, while the electric energy from Lukas, the swift honky tonk piano solos by Bobbi and bluesy undertones from Smith made the solos from Raphael on harmonica that much sweeter. The show opened with favorite “Whiskey River” and ended with what should be Nelson's personal mantra, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” With a crowd adorned with cowboy hats, the excitement was palpable through multiple standing ovations as well as some euphoric sing-a-longs. Nelson demonstrated his affection to the crowd by slingshotting his infamous headbands to the front row as well as returning waves and catching kisses blown from the ladies.
With some of my favorites – “On the Road Again” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” – the more than familiar tunes brought the roots of great Americana music to the stage. Along with some Nelson-style covers of “Georgia On My Mind” and a couple from Hank Williams, including “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin’" and “Move It On Over,” Nelson showed the crowd that even in his retirement, he is still going strong.
Although no encore, Nelson stayed out on stage while the band played an instrumental of the old gospel classic “I Saw the Light,” as Nelson shook hands, signed autographs and took photos with all who could make it close enough for him to do so. I'm sure Willie Nelson & Family will go down as a definite Fair favorite this year.