When an acquaintance calls you up and says something about free tickets to see Willie Nelson, you listen.
When you know that guy is a professional ticket broker and the kind of fellow who wouldn't blink at buying a $5,000 poster because he thought it was cool, you listen extra hard, because these seats ain't gonna be the "in-the-balcony-next-to-the-bar" kind you usually get.
That's how Shannon and I ended up on the fourth row at ACL Moody Theater on Saturday night, sipping $8 beers and thinking about ways to describe how close we were.
("I could have hit Lukas Nelson with a marshmallow" is the winner. A jumbo marshmallow, though our host did try to move us up to the front row during intermission when two in his 4-person party didn't show — but someone ratted us out and a ticket stub check hastened us back to our just-as-good seats.)
Let's get right to it: Willie, at 84 years old, sounded great. He didn't sound 1970s great. Or even 1990s great. But he sounded as great as as a grateful fan could reasonably expect. No, his set isn't much changed. The same half-dozen songs to open the show, the same gospel medley to close it. And the usual suspects in between.
I soaked it all in—at this stage, every time is the last time — but it was also fun to watch the show through the eyes of Shannon, who hasn't seen this set annually for the past 20 years. The last time, in fact, was at the 2004 Picnic in Fort Worth, a day of heat and crowds that prompted Shannon to tell me on the Fifth of July "I love you, but I am never doing that shit again."
Shannon is not an outdoor festival person. I am, I guess. I've listened to Willie play this close before. But that was standing on sore feet, sweaty, stinking and sunburned after 12 hours at a Picnic, wedged into a crowd in the same condition as me, except drunker.
The ACL Moody Theater is a different scene entirely. Quite comfortable and easy to navigate — although the tightly packed floor seats meant you couldn't get up without disturbing your neighbors. It's probably best (for my wallet at least) that I didn't feel like I could buy more beer during Micah Nelson's set, but my enjoyment of Lukas Nelson would've been bolstered if I could've gone to pee during at least one of those 10-minute guitar solos.
Yes, Willie's boys opened the show. I've seen Micah in at least four different bands over the last decade as he has tried to find a sound for himself. Though not my taste, exactly, his musical chops seem fine to me, but it seems that it was Lukas who inherited most of the charisma. Half an hour of Particle Kid was generous. Lukas made the most of his hourlong set, opening and closing with "Breakdown" and "American Girl" in honor of Tom Petty.
"Forget about Georgia" was the Lukas highlight to me. His voice slips in and out of eerie Willie likeness enough that I'll probably go see him at some point in my 60s when I get to thinking about how I miss the old man.
The old man was still there last night. At some points looking all of his years and then some, then at others he'd flash that Willie grin or that left-eye half-wink thing he does and he'd be the same guy I saw when I was 21 and looking for a musical hero. Every time is the last time. I cheered the Texas flag dropping down (he doesn't do that at the Picnics, so I haven't seen it in a long time). I yelled "Willie!" at least a half-dozen times. I watched Bobbie and Willie play together. I cheered a Mickey Raphael harmonica solo. I sang along with "Good Hearted Woman" and "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" and "I Saw The Light."
Shannon and I don't get out much. We're indebted to our host (who probably just wants this eBay junkie to think of him next time I see something cool I can't afford). And we're indebted to Grandma and Grandpa Williams who came up to babysit on short notice. (You can't just get anyone to watch Ghostman.) Sure, there were crowds and lines and traffic and a lot of stairs for a woman who had four foot surgeries this year. But it was awesome. A fine, fine way to end 2017 on a rare high note.
And yes, that was our New Year's Eve. We ain't doing shit tonight.