Here’s what we saw at Willie Nelson’s Des Moines concert
From his days as a Bible salesman to his favorite Southern food to the story behind his iconic braids, Willie Nelson gave us little peeks inside his lifetime of experience (that’s chock-full of some crazy stuff, we’re sure!).
Shotgun Willie Nelson and his band of gypsies rolled into downtown Des Moines on Wednesday for a showing of classic outlaw country.
A total 5,022 traveled to Wells Fargo Arena for a night with the Red Headed Stranger, his first time performing at Iowa’s largest indoor venue. Fans saw Nelson perform for 75 minutes, songs highlighting his celebrated career and the career of iconic country counterparts.
Part of the “Willie Nelson and Family” tour, it marked Nelson’s first appearance in the region since headlining Hinterland Music Festival in August 2016. The show comes in support of his latest album, “Last Man Standing,” which drops April 27.
“Well, I woke up …”
The Willie songs: Armed with Trigger, his beaten and beloved guitar, Nelson took the stage to a standing ovation, leading the band into a rendition of “Whiskey River.”
He gave the crowd “On the Road Again” and “Crazy” and “Always On My Mind,” but it was the new songs, the self-aware songs about Nelson’s age, like 2017’s “Still Not Dead” and 2012’s “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” that energized the crowd. The Kennedy Center honoree turns 85 later this month.
Nelson played 20-plus songs, filling the set with 1990s number “Still Is Still Movin’,” Toby Keith collaboration “Beer For My Horses,” 1980’s “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and long-performed “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
The Hank, Merle and Waylon songs: Nelson dug into his treasure chest of country tributes Wednesday night.
The Texas-raised legend gave onlookers a three-part nod to Hank Williams: “Jambalaya,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over.” Earlier in the night he praised Waylon Jennings, covering “Good Hearted Woman.”
“Let’s do one for Waylon,” he exclaimed.
His 2015 collaboration with the late Merle Haggard, “It’s All Going To Pot,” led into the show’s finale.
Around Willie: He came backed by his five-piece family band, including pianist “Sister” Bobbie Nelson, who Nelson congratulated on stage for being inducted last year in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.
The show didn’t come with the glamorous stage set-up or pyrotechnics some acts associate with an arena gig. The stage’s sole prop, a Texas flag, flew down from the rafters during the opening "Whiskey River" notes and stayed hanging behind band throughout the show.
As they did when he entered the room, the crowd gave a standing ovation as Nelson and his band closed with “I Saw The Light.”
“Thank ya, Des Moines,” he said. “We love ya’ll.”
The opening outlaws
A trio of prime time country players offered main support for Nelson, anchored by a 40-minute, 12-song Dwight Yoakam set.
Yoakam opened with his outlaw country take on Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” before leading the crowd into renditions of 1987’s “Please Please Baby” and “Little Sister.” From there, he and his four-piece band tore through songs from the '80s and beyond, closing the set with “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Fast As You.”
As he did at Hinterland last August, Yoakam took time on stage to celebrate Haggard, who died two years ago last week (“Merle had a profound impact on my singing and songwriting,” he shared).
He jested, also, about his return to the Midwest.
"Down I-80, across the Mississippi and past the World's Largest Truck Stop ... you get into Des Moines and this song works,” Yoakam said before kicking off "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere."
A Robert Earl jam: Second up, Robert Earl Keen brought fans a six-song, half-hour set, including “Feeling Good Again” and “Shades Of Gray.”
His performance came highlighted by a nearly 10-minute guitar and fiddle jam of set closer “The Road Goes On Forever.” It wouldn’t be Keen’s last moment on stage, though. He returned to help Nelson close the night out with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Saw The Light.”
Short stories with Brandy Clark: The Nashville songwriter opened the evening with a quick 20-minute set, playing five stripped down songs while backed by a stand-up bass and acoustic guitar duo. Her songs, like “You’re Drunk” and “Daughter” told honest stories, the kind a fan at a Nelson show would want.
“I am thrilled to be part of this bill tonight,” she said. Here’s to hoping Des Moines sees a headlining Clark set soon.
The "Willie Nelson and Family" tour continues Friday at the Five Flags Center in Dubuque.