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Willie Nelson and Family, Fox Tucson Theatre, July 11

How many standing ovations can fit into a single performance?

"Hits" doesn't begin to describe how beloved, and how absolutely essential, so many of Willie Nelson's songs are to country music—and it all equates to fans leaping to their feet in applause about half the time. So when the grizzled, 79-year-old Red Headed Stranger stuffs 32 songs into a 90-minute show, it makes for a hell of a lot of hooting and hollering.

Starting with "Whiskey River," Nelson ran through 50 years of hits—his and others. And it's not like just anybody can peel off "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Night Life" in a row, just as if they're any old songs. That's the magic of Willie Nelson.

Backed by a spare band of bass, harmonica, snare drum and percussion, Willie introduced his little sister, Bobbie, who sat at the piano for a bopping instrumental version of the standard "Down Yonder." Willie, meanwhile, switched out his cowboy hat for a trademark red bandanna.

Willie returned with "Me and Paul," a hard-luck travelin' tale that sounds all the more true for the fact that he's still out on the road performing.

Willie also turned to some friends' songbooks, playing Waylon Jennings' "Good Hearted Woman," Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" and Billy Joe Shaver's "You Asked Me To."

"Georgia on My Mind" was especially beautiful, with Mickey Raphael—too often asked just for some harmonica accents—turned loose for a deep, bluesy solo.

Willie's daughter Amy joined on harmony vocals for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away," another bit of homage to his roots after an earlier three-song run of Hank Williams.

Willie played his latest hit toward the end, introducing "Roll Me Up" ("And Smoke Me When I Die") as a "new gospel song." It's a song that could only come from Willie.

The big finish was more from Hank: "I Saw the Light." Tossing bandannas and waving to the crowd, Willie allowed himself a quick victory lap while the band played on, the crowd once again on its feet in celebration of another thrilling show from Willie, Trigger and the gang.

More by Eric Swedlund

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