‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ as Willie Nelson packs hits into fun 70-minute Bluestem show

At 90, Nelson still delivers an engaging concert for the first of two sold-out nights.

Willie Nelson points at the crowd during a sold out performance on Monday, May 22, 2023, at the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

MOORHEAD — Some people age like wine. Willie Nelson ages like leather.

At 90, the singer/guitarist may show more creases and wrinkles, but he also reveals more strength, character and warmth in his playing as he displayed Monday, May 22 in the first of two sold-out nights at Moorhead’s Bluestem Amphitheater.

If the first night is any indication, the second night will be a blast. The show was a tight, 70-minute set that focused mostly on his hits over a remarkable seven decade career. That alone was enough to please the crowd of 3,498. What made it even more special was playing alongside his son Lukas, who showed that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Willie’s voice isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t for the record industry in the 1960s when he was seen more as a songwriter than a singer. What he lacked in range, he made up for with his timing and phrasing and paired that with a similar approach to guitar playing.

Willie Nelson performs live on Monday, May 22, 2023, to a sold out crowd at the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

When he took the stage, promptly at 8 p.m., it at first sounded like his voice wouldn’t be there for the Moorhead crowd. Kicking off with his signature opener, “Whiskey River,” his voice was barely audible and seemed to come in and out. Country fans who remembered the rough Kris Kristofferson show with Merle Haggard in 2015 were probably nervously thinking, “Here we go again.”


Whether the uneasy beginning was the result of the wind or a technical aspect, Nelson quickly adapted and he showed more with a cover of Bob Wills’ “Stay a Little Longer.” By the time he got to Hank Williams’ “Move it on Over,” he was really warming up.

He rolled through a medley of his songs that were first hits for other people, “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Nightlife” and “Crazy.” The latter showed how he pairs his vocals and finger-picking to put his own stamp on the tune that is vastly different from the better known Patsy Cline version.

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Actually, Willie’s battered Martin guitar, Trigger, looks like how his voice sounds: Scratched, well-worn with a hole in the body, but still able to create a wonderfully full sound.

By the time he got to “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground,” his crooning and finger-picking were flying high and the tune was the performance high point of the show.

Willie Nelson encourages the crowd to sing along on Monday, April 22, 2023, at the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Others may disagree, and with 24 tunes there were plenty of potential peaks to choose from. Fans leapt to their feet when he played his Snoop Dogg duet “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and they sang along to “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again”.

For many, the real revelation of the show was the performance of Lukas Nelson, who was his father’s right-hand man. The elder singer turned the mic over to him after three songs asking him to play “Texas Flood.” Lukas delivered a soulful telling of the blues standard and showed his own guitar chops on a Fender Telecaster.

Later, he channeled his father’s reedy voice in his own “Just Outside of Austin” and the heartbreaking “(Forget About) Georgia.” The icing on the cake was hearing him say “Take it, Dad,” as he threw his father a solo. Toward the end of the night, they delivered a chilling duet on Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.”

Willie Nelson and his son Lukas perform on Monday, May 22, 2023, at the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

The only remaining member of the classic Family band that backed Willie for years is Mickey Raphael, whose harmonica has peppered tunes for 50-plus years. It’s a coupling that shouldn’t make sense on paper but hearing it live seems natural. Even on the ballad “Always on My Mind,” Raphael’s harp underscored Nelson’s haunting phrasing.


Willie has always had a good sense of humor (when he got into trouble for back taxes in 1990 he released the album “The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?”) and he showed it Monday night with his kiss off to record executives, “Write Your Own Songs.” Closing the night with Mac Davis’ ode to self-adoration, “It’s Hard to be Humble,” was another nice touch.

Still, some of the songs took on a deeper resonance Monday night. This was Willie’s first show in Fargo-Moorhead since playing Newman Outdoor Field 20 years ago, and his most recent regional show was at WE Fest in 2011. His Tuesday night concert will certainly be his last, and that brought a sense of self-reflection to some of the songs, like “Funny How Time Slips Away” and the lyrics, “I gotta go now/ Guess I'll see you around/ Don't know when though/ Never know when I'll be back in town.”

Willie Nelson and his signature guitar, Trigger, on Monday, May 22, 2023 at the Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Willie is not performing like the end is in sight. While he sat for the whole show, he played with energy and was engaged with the crowd, often pointing or waving back at fans.

Back in the day, he would swap bandannas and hats with fans in the crowd and even gamely pose in the background as fans took selfies in front of the stage. That’s not happening much now, and while he did throw his hat and bandanna into the audience at the end of the night, he didn’t slap hands or sign autographs. The lack of personal interaction extended to the stage as even all of the road crew were masked up.

No one seemed to mind. Keep Willie safe and healthy and playing well.

He may not age like a fine wine, but he still shines.

GALLERY: More from the first of Willie Nelson's two nights in Moorhead

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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