Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss & Union Station
Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary
Monday, May 19, 2014

It’s no surprise that the venerable country icon and outlaw Willie Nelson delivered an outstanding set Monday night at Koka Booth Amphitheatre. His rowdy energy belied his 81-plus years of age and forced many of the graying audience members out of their chairs.
Alison Krauss and Union Station primed the crowd for Nelson with an hour-long set that saw the singer return to form nicely after being diagnosed last fall with the vocal condition dysphonia. Although she seemed to struggle occasionally to summon sufficient volume, the delicately-voiced Krauss still flashed the brilliance of her soft, honeyed pipes often, particularly on “The Lucky One” and “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” as a stark contrast to guitarist Dan Tyminski’s powerhouse vocals on “Wild Bill Jones” and “Dust Bowl Children.”

Though Tyminski also performed the two songs that’ve brought him the most fame, “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Hey Brother,” he and the band’s stormy rendition of “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” was a late-set highlight. The band unplugged and the crew brought out a single microphone for the encore, a captivating sequence in which Krauss and company played an abbreviated version of her signature tune “When You Say Nothing At All” accompanied by Tyminski and Ron Block’s guitars. The band followed with harmony-laden takes on “Whiskey Lullaby,” “Your Long Journey,” and an a capella arrangement of “Down to the River to Pray.”

Nelson quickly whipped through a string of sing-along hits after kicking off his set with “Whiskey River,” including “Beer for My Horses,” “Good Hearted Woman,” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” His five-piece band, The Family, backed him largely in a low-key manner, with a harmonica or piano solo occasionally taking the spotlight briefly away from Nelson. Otherwise, they kept a solid rhythm, shuffling here and galloping there as Nelson wrestled knotty notes out of Trigger, particularly on a medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life.” Nelson started and stopped songs whenever he damn well pleased, resulting in a loose, ragged roadhouse vibe during the set.’

Barely pausing for a breath between songs, Nelson’s weathered baritone remained strong throughout the night. He toyed with the crowd, peeling his trademark red bandana from his forehead several times and tossing it into the first few rows of the center section before immediately replacing it with another. Though he offered up a preview of his forthcoming album Band of Brothers with the title track, he mostly stuck to tried-and-true crowd pleasers.

Nelson closed out the night with a rousing gospel finale — featuring all three members of The Devil Makes Three along with Union Station’s Barry Bales and Jerry Douglas — that included “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and Nelson’s own “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” which he introduced as a new gospel song. As the band jammed out “I Saw the Light” as exit music, someone in the lawn screamed “Don’t die, Willie!” As long as he’s around, he seems to be doing just fine making sure the music is staying alive with him.