Thank the gods it was a living legend following Sturgill Simpson’s set last night at Verizon Arena. Anybody but Willie might have broken the spell.

Simpson, the penultimate rocker on a lineup that started at 4:30 p.m. and ended a little before midnight, performed with what was easily the least amount of equipment I’ve ever seen on the Verizon Arena stage, and managed to get a fury from it that many more expensive/expansive shows at the venue haven’t touched. Simpson rips riffs hard and fiery, and his rhythm section is the stuff of rock and roll dreams; a frenetic drummer and a force of nature for a bass player (who, enderaringly, stepped to the footlight at set’s close and captured the Arkansas crowd on his cell phone). Channeling some “Whipping Post”-level menace and some Stax-level swagger, Simpson and his crew took on the likes of Moloch’s “Goin’ Down” (by way of Freddie King) and ended with an extended guitar frenzy that would have seemed right at home on a handful of heavy music/metal bills in Little Rock this year.


Then, Shotgun Willie Hugh Nelson and his longtime axe-of-choice/artifact/weapon of peace, Trigger, appeared in front of the traditional giant Texas flag backdrop and launched into a string of hits couched in easy, laidback shuffle rhythms and clockwork drums.

Nelson’s singing voice is decidedly less of a croon than it once was (I mean, dude is a spry 85 years old, after all, and the voice changes), but he’s found a way to keep performing by pacing his vocal timbre, delivering whole phrases as if they were a single, uninterrupted word. He “sing-talks” with a free, unmetered quality that, presumably, must materialize after you sing the same song the same way thousands of times. Notably, Nelson’s guitar work is as charming and nimble as ever, and listeners were reminded of the connection Nelson’s work built — and maintains — with peripheral catalogues of jazz chords and Texas swing. Didn’t matter much that the vocals were sparse, especially as a crowd of 6,131 knew and sang all the words anyway. Such was “Whiskey River,” “Beer For My Horses,” “Good Hearted Woman” (with a shout out to Waylon), “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”(written by Ed Bruce of Keiser, Ark.), “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” “On the Road Again,” and a host of other favorites.

Onstage with Willie was, of course, his sister and longtime collaborator Bobbie Nelson, as were Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah, both of whom had performed sets earlier in the evening. In fact, Willie stepped aside to showcase Lukas’ potent, sultry wail and wildly expressive guitar tone on “Texas Flood,” just in case anybody was wondering how far exactly that apple fell from the red-headed tree.

Highlights included: the way Mickey Raphael’s harmonica wafted in and out like an accordion in some French cafe, a Tom T. Hall tune for good measure, the moments when Willie went mondo surf guitar with his tone and the beautiful delivery of “Always On My Mind” — a rare moment when the octogenarian’s vocal reticence lifted and Willie’s inimitable voice bloomed.

Most transcendent of the entire evening, though? A poignantly timely rendition of Nelson’s 1986 release “Living in the Promiseland,” sung as a trio with Willie and his two sons.

“Give us your tired and weak

And we will make them strong

Bring us your foreign songs

And we will sing along



Leave us your broken dreams

We’ll give them time to mend

There’s still a lot of love

Living in the Promiseland



Living in the Promiseland

Our dreams are made of steel

The prayer of every man

Is to know how freedom feels



There is a winding road

Across the shifting sand

And room for everyone

Living in the Promiseland



So they came from a distant isle

Nameless woman

Faithless child like a bad dream

Until there was no room at all

No place to run, and no place to fall



Give us our daily bread

We have no shoes to wear

No place to call our home

Only this cross to bear



We are the multitudes

Lend us a helping hand

Is there no love anymore?

Living in the Promiseland.”

-Willie Nelson

Check out Arkansas Times photographer Brian Chilson’s slideshow from the concert.