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A night of classic songs and family ties took over the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) on Tuesday night with Willie Nelson and his family.
A country legend, Nelson has passed down his musical talents to his children, who performed with him. Nearly all of Nelson’s offspring — Lukas, Mikah and Amy Nelson — lead bands of their own. They all joined their father on stage to help sing background vocals and instrumentals.
Lukas opened up the show with his band, Promise of the Real. He started off with a mix of genres that echoed his own background traveling with Willie and The Highwaymen when he was young.
Transitioning from rock to blues to country effortlessly, Lukas highlighted his father’s influence on his own music. Not only does Lukas write the majority of the songs for his own band, but he has also collaborated with Nelson for songs on both of their albums.
“This one is a country song I wrote on Dad’s album,” Lukas said as he introduced “No Place to Fly.”
The family writes songs together as well as performs together live. “There Are No Words” was a song Lukas and Willie wrote and sang together that appeared on Lukas’ first album; Lukas called it a hidden gem.
After a mix of some of the band’s more well-known songs, it was time for Nelson to take the stage.
“We’ll be right back with Dad,” Lukas said.
Following a 10-minute intermission, Nelson walked onto the stage, a spotlight accompanying him to the center, where he strapped his guitar and adjusted his trademark bandana.
Nelson started off the set with one of his most famous songs, “Whiskey River,” while a larger-than-life Texas flag unfurled behind him. Lukas stood on Nelson’s left and sang the familiar lyrics while strumming his guitar.
The almost two-hour set was fast-paced, hitting on many of the country songs that Nelson made standard, including “Good Hearted Woman,” “Beer for my Horses” and “Crazy.”
A line of bright lights on either side of the stage flashed on beat to accompany the audience while they sang out well-known lines from these standards.
Many of Nelson’s songs depicted his life on the road. With 80 years under his belt and almost 60 of those spent traveling, it’s no surprise Nelson has a few songs about touring on a bus throughout the nation. “On the Road Again” and “Me and Paul” reflected Nelson’s love of seeing different cities in the U.S. while playing music.
To add even more energy, Nelson threw out his bandana to the crowd while quickly replacing it with one on the stage. Over the course of the performance, he threw out five more bandanas, to a delighted audience.
The spotlight shifted — literally and figuratively — to Lukas, as he sang “Texas Flood” in tribute to Stevie Ray. Members of Lukas’ band came out again for the song as well.
“The energy on stage is like bliss,” Lukas said. “It’s like watching a dream unfold and all you got is love in your heart.”
But it wasn’t just the younger generation that joined Willie on stage — his sister Bobbie Nelson plays piano in his band, The Family. The rest of the band was rounded out with others who have been touring with Willie for years, including drummer Paul English, who has toured with Nelson since 1973.
“The rest of them are family, too, just not by blood,” Lukas said.
Nelson also sang some new material, most notably two gospel songs at the end of the performance.
“A Big Band of Sisters and Brothers or Whatever” echoed the family atmosphere that Nelson surrounds himself with while touring.
Siblings Lukas, Micah and Amy Nelson came up to the front of the stage with arms around each other singing Nelson’s other newer song “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” They swayed to the beat as they sang backup and messed up each other’s hair.
At the end of the set, Nelson shook hands with everyone in the front row, some wearing the bandanas he had thrown into the audience.
Sitting in the balcony, audience members and San Luis Obispo residents Morgan Kavanaugh and Luis Lapostol had been listening to Nelson for years. They grew up with his music but had never seen him perform live.
“I had a moment of almost ‘Oh, no’ when he first came on, because he has been playing music for so long and he’s older,” Lapostol said. “I thought it was going to be different from what I had heard before. But within the first two songs, that feeling was completely gone.”
They thought Nelson’s family being onstage added a new dimension to the show.
“It was cool that his kids were there,” Kavanaugh said. “You could tell that they were all related by the way they sang.”
The two were not familiar with Lukas’ original music before the show.
“I was very impressed with (Lukas) because we had never listened to him before,” Lapostol said. “I think we are even going to try to see him at SLO Brew next month.”