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By Stephen Seigel

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  GIVING THANKS: So there we were, bleary eyed and virtually delirious, my traveling companion and I having driven all night to make it to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving. We'd just finished eating breakfast in our hotel's coffee shop--our first meal in roughly 15 hours--when we decided to retire to our room for some much-needed slumber. Since we'd done absolutely no planning, we had no idea what the entertainment gods had arranged for us during our stay. Luckily, our hotel room was equipped with one of those glossy weekly event publications, the bible of Vegas, placed somewhat incongruously next to Gideons'.

Hoping to find some sort of quintessentially cheesy Vegas show, I leafed through the pages until I met our destiny (or at the very least, our destination for the following night): Willie Nelson was playing for four nights at the Orleans, a place I'd never heard of. It didn't matter where it was; I would've sat in a pile of cow shit to hear Willie. My companion thought I was nuts. The only Willie Nelson song she was certain she knew was "On the Road Again." She had no idea why I was jumping on the phone to immediately order tickets.

After the ticket agent told me that tickets were 50 bucks--an amount I'd only paid once before, for a front-row ticket to Bob Dylan--I thought twice. Then after being informed that the only tickets left were for "overflow seating," I thought about it a third time. But then I remembered that ancient idiom: When in Vegas, do as the hedonists. So I authorized the charge, and focused my energy on forgetting about the bill until its delivery in about two weeks, smack in the midst of the gift-buying season. (doh!) But we were in Vegas, and this was Willie Nelson.

I'd seen Willie countless times in the '80s...so many times, in fact, that I took those amazing shows for granted. The Illinois State Fair visited my hometown of Springfield every August. The governor of our fair state during most of the '80s was one Jim Thompson, who, although he was a Republican, forged a real and lasting friendship (golf buddies, if I remember correctly) with Willie, who most certainly was not a registered member of the GOP (one of my favorite Willie Nelson stories being his confession of having smoked a joint on the White House roof during the Carter administration).

Anyway, Gov. Thompson made damn sure that Willie had a Fair gig every summer, as long as the fans kept turning out to see him. That was never a problem. Willie fans border on religious in their zeal, and once newcomers witnessed his live show, they were likely to convert to lifelong fandom.

So here in Vegas, of all places, was my chance to win Willie another convert: I was decidedly more excited about the show than she, but once Willie walked out on stage and broke into his traditional opener, "Whiskey River," with a Texas state flag unfurled behind him, she was whistling a different tune. Old-school blue-haired country fans, leather-clad Hell's Angels, displaced Deadheads, well-dressed hipsters--all were on their feet, co-mingling in their singular devotion to Willie, who disappointed no one.

Looking like he was born on a stage under a flood of lights, he fired off classic after classic from his encyclopedic catalog of self-penned songs, as well as the occasional cover tune (including Gershwin's "Stardust" and a trio of Kris Kristofferson songs), pausing only to deliver flawless Spanish-influenced solos from his trademarked two-holed acoustic guitar (one of the holes courtesy of friction from his hand over God-knows-how-many years of playing).

And while I could rattle off a shopping list of the classic songs the guy's written in his career, it's downright astounding to witness them played live, one after another, by the man himself. There's "Time of the Preacher," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," "Night Life," "Hello Walls," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy," and of course, "On the Road Again." And astoundingly enough, he found time to play nearly all of them. About two hours into the concert, I asked a theater employee how long he expected the show to run. "Well, let me tell you," he began. "Every show we've ever had in this theater gets a cut-off time from the hotel, usually about an hour and 15 minutes. The only way Willie agreed to play here is if he didn't get one. He's the only one they've ever made an exception for. Willie quits when Willie's ready to quit."

After almost three hours, Willie said his goodnights and walked to the lip of the stage. Half the theater, including myself and my newly Willie-worshipping companion, flooded to the stage to shake his hand and get an autograph. He took plenty of time, making sure nobody walked away empty-handed, earning even more respect from his adoring crowd, if that was indeed possible. As for me, I was reduced to gushing fanboy status as I shook his hand and, in the spirit of Las Vegas, handed him a dollar bill to sign.

When my credit card statement comes in the mail, I'll pay it with a smile.


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