Concert review: Willie Nelson’s latest visit doesn’t live up to his last

Photo: Bill Hughes
Jason Harris

Three stars

Willie Nelson January 10, House of Blues

How can something so similar feel so different? In 2013, Willie Nelson blew me away—along with the rest of the crowd—at the Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, playing a bevy of hits, both his own and those belonging to other country legends. It was the type of night when the music became something more than a concert. It was a communal celebration, in which all partook, and it was one of my favorite live experiences ever in Las Vegas.

Cut to this past weekend. The 81-year-old Nelson, still going strong, played back-to-back shows at House of Blues. The setlist was similar to that from the previous tour stop: “Whiskey River” to open, set pieces “Georgia on My Mind” and “Always on My Mind,” tributes to fallen comrade Waylon Jennings (“Good Hearted Woman”) and country godfather Hank Williams (a medley of “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It on Over”). On paper, it should have been another transcendent night.

But something just didn’t click. It wasn’t for a lack of effort on Nelson’s part. His distinctive voice and singular guitar work were both in good form, and his five-piece backing band—highlighted by older sister Bobbie on piano—was also in top shape. But that indefinable connection between performer and audience just wasn’t there.

Maybe it was a more casual crowd. Everyone is on the Strip, but finding the Smith Center might have been an effort only diehards cared to make. Maybe it was Saturday’s ill-conceived room setup—the general admission pit half full of standing patrons, surrounded by VIP high-top tables, with more GA patrons on the outer tiers—which separated the crowd rather than brought it together. Or maybe it was the muted sound, not nearly as pristine as on his last visit. I’ve seen shows at House of Blues where none of that factored in, but this time, it made what could have been a special night only enjoyable.

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