How hard can it be to find someone to go see Willie Nelson at Red Rocks? On Labor Day Weekend?! Harder than you’d think! It seemed everyone had plans, couldn’t get out or just plain didn’t want to go see the redheaded stranger this weekend. I began to regret purchasing two tickets to this show and began to second guess going myself. I saw Willie last year in Kentucky; he was the opener for John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan and he was the highlight of the night. I was really looking forward to seeing him perform a full set at Red Rocks but the thought of going alone took a lot of the fun out of it. So at the last minute I figured ‘what the hell’, I’ll bring the family! I drove up to Morrison, bought a GA ticket off a scalper for face value, BBQ’d some hot dogs and packed up some beer, chips, waters and the wife and kid and we were off!
Even though we arrived around 6:15pm, we sat in a line of traffic heading up Entrance 1 and were directed to the lower lot because the upper was already full. It seems that even though I had a problem getting anyone to come, Willie has no problem packing them in. By the time we finished our tailgating and got into the venue it was around 7:45 and the place was packed! We found out way to our seats in the 43rd row just in time to catch the tail-end of Lukas Nelson‘s (Willie‘s son) set .
We got settled, I went to get drinks and got back just in time for Ryan Bingham. Ryan should be a household name by now, but unfortunately, he is not. His excellent third album, Junky Star, was just released, he won an Oscar for songwriting for the movie Crazy Heart, which he also had a small role in and his last album, Roadhouse Sun, was one of my favorites last year. He reminds me a lot of Ryan Adams, but also has a Tom Waits grit to him. I could see him as being the 5th Drive-By Trucker.
Bingham and his band, The Dead Horses, were given almost an hour long set and they used every minute of it to convince the crowd that they weren’t just another young, inexperienced opening act. Relying heavily on material from his debut album, Bingham proved he was a true artist up there, performing what he felt right at the time, instead of just pushing the new album.
This was one of the best opening acts I have seen in a long time and by the reaction of the crowd, they could relate to his brand of country…with his dark and realistic take on what this promised land has become. And his looks probably didn’t hurt when it came to the women in the crowd…as my wife was happy to point out.
Willie took the stage at 9:25 with Whiskey River. 9,000 people on their feet singing along with the 77 year old country icon and my 8 year old looks up at me and yells ‘he’s really old but he’s still good!’. I think I probably said the same thing to my grandfather when I was about her age. I swear I keep getting older and Willie stays the same age. He looked exactly the same…long grey hair, red bandana, rainbow guitar strap…back when I was 8!
The set started out really strong with Whiskey River followed by Still Is Still Moving Me and Beer For My Horses, but after that the energy died down a little. You could tell that even though Willie might look the same, he is getting older. His voice doesn’t carry as far, even on a still night at Red Rocks…and he doesn’t move around quite as much. I have to admit I was a little nervous that my wife and daughter were going to be let down after how much I had built him up…but then he came back around and proved why he can still pack a house at almost 80 years old!
Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys followed by Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground followed by On The Road Again! My wife and I were dancing, our daughter curled up on the bench behind us, Denver skyline on the horizon and draped on each side by brightly lit monoliths…it was a perfect night to be out with the family and I was taken back to nights as a child with my family in San Jose. These songs bring back memories I didn’t know I had.
The days of 3+ hour jam sessions are behind Willie, but for the next hour and a half he continued to play his songs, Hank‘s songs…old songs and new songs. Sad songs, happy songs and just plain funny songs (too many pain pills, too much pot, I ain’t superman…I used to fake a heart attack, And fall down on the floor, But even I don’t think that’s funny anymore!).
Carrying the kid (who was faking sleep so she wouldn’t have to walk) out to the car, I couldn’t help but think that even though Willie has played Red Rocks countless times, we just witnessed something special…