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On Saturday afternoon, a small group of friends and family and I set out from the farm to enjoy a much looked-forward-to event, Willie Nelson in concert at the nearby (about 30 miles from my front door) Star Lake Amphitheater.
I was excited. My entire family, both birth and married, are avid traditional country music fans, and Willie Nelson has been at, or near, the top of our list for decades. (Some of you, who think you’ve sussed me out by now, might want to check your disbelief at the door. Keep reading.)
One of the oft-told memories of my sister’s life occurred at a Willie Nelson concert in the UK when he dropped his hat. Seated only a few rows in, she caught it, and threw it back. He blew her a kiss. But this past Saturday night, I couldn’t help a few trepidations about the whole thing. Let me explain:
Somewhere in the early 1990s, I purchased tickets for the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling, WV, (home of Jamboree USA!) to see George Jones. The occasion was a visit from England by that same sister and her husband.
Unfortunately, No-Show-Jones lived up to his name, as he was being dried-out or otherwise cared for, during the aftermath of one of his many unfortunate lifelong “health” calamities. And so Doug Stone, someone I’d never heard of and regarded as a B-List substitute, filled in.
As it turned out, Doug did a fine job, and we greatly enjoyed the show. An added bonus was the fuss the staff made–immediately calling the manager–over my sister. They were thrilled that she’d flown all the way across the Atlantic to attend the show. They loved her accent. They were stunned at her knowledge of country music. They wanted to know if she was going to Dollywood. (Of course, she was!) And they gave us all tickets to attend the after-show party with snacks and drinks, in the room up above the stage.
And so that is how my sister and I came to find ourselves at a party, chatting with the singer for the 1170 house band, which had performed at half-time. He was a lovely young man who gave us each an eight-by-10 studio photo of himself in costume, with the hat. Signed: Brad Paisley. (Everything I’ve heard about him since confirms our initial “nice guy” sense. What a charmer.)
But I was sorry to have missed George Jones.
Fast forward to almost 25 years later, when I discovered in the Spring of 2016 that Merle Haggard had a show scheduled at the same Capitol Theatre in May. (For those who don’t know, I’m in SW Pennsylvania, and Wheeling is only about 20 miles away, much closer, and much less trouble to get to and from than Pittsburgh.) So I got myself a single ticket to see The Hag, as Mr. She wasn’t really up for the trip at that point, and I couldn’t find anyone else on short notice.
Not long before the show, on April 6, 2016, Merle Haggard died of pneumonia.
This past April, I was on the phone with my sister, and I mentioned that it was Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday, and that there was a big bash at the Hollywood Bowl to celebrate. “I think he’s still touring,” I said.
“Hang on,” she said. “Let me check.” Slight pause. Followed by a squeal. “He’s coming to Pittsburgh in August!”
My first thought was, “Willie! Pittsburgh! I’m all in.” Then caution asserted itself. “Are you Crazy?” (see what I did there). First George. Then Merle. Now, 90-year-old Willie. Four months hence. What are the odds?”
Still, “mother never bred a jibber,” as mine used to say, so I asked around, gathered reinforcements, and bought the tickets. Not the best seats. Not under roof; but rather, on the lawn. Still, an adventure! And Willie!
For the week leading up to the event, we kept a wary eye on the weather. Until Thursday, all was well. Then, ominous reports began to creep in, so that by Friday we were looking at a 25% chance of afternoon showers and perhaps widely-scattered thunderstorms.
Saturday morning? OMG! Severe thunderstorms! Possible tornadoes! High winds! Large hail!
I remembered the always sage–never amiss at such moments–advice of my dear friend Glenda, and so I took a “calm-your-a**-down pill,” regrouped, and checked the venue’s website.
“This concert will be held, rain or shine,” it chirped happily.
So at about 2:30 on Saturday afternoon, we set out with our ponchos (those things like large plastic tablecloths with a hood in the middle), waterproof mats, several other useful weather-related accessories, and an intrepid spirit, arriving at Star Lake in good time, and parking without incident. Of course, we immediately went for the snacks, and settled down comfortably on the lawn for the duration.
Things kicked off on time, about 4:30, the weather appeared to be holding up, and we were starting to think: “Phew, perhaps we’ll make it.”
The first warm-up act was truly awful. I can’t remember his name, which is probably just as well. He was followed by The Particle Kid, who is one of Willie’s sons. Talented, but by-and-large not my kind of music. Although he’s a whistler–a skill I think is vastly underrated–and I greatly enjoyed that part of his oeuvre. And then a band which was quite good but which needs to learn pacing and variety in its music. Love song? BAMM BAMM BAMM. Ballad? BAMM BAMM BAMM. Anthem: BAMM BAMM BAMM. And so on, until my ears were almost dripping blood.
By then, the heavens had opened, we were sitting in the pouring rain in a field on which the newest raindrops were bouncing against the previous ones, everything was sodden, and even the large, spread-out, plastic ponchos were proving useless.
Finally, the thunder, lightning, and the public address system kicked in, and those of us in the peanut gallery were invited to take shelter under the pavilion roof while the show was on hold.
We managed to find seats not quite–but mostly–under the roof, as we continued to be battered by the storm. Everything about me was soaked. Without delving much into realms of TMI, just be assured that every part, every crevice, every crack of me had water running down, through, in, and out of it. And that–although it wasn’t cold–the occasional strong wind gusts gave quite a chilling effect to the whole. The only saving grace was a small group of enterprising lads who took garbage bags and created head-first and feet-first toboggan races down the amphitheater “bowl” in the splashing water. They were entertaining in their own right, but made even more so by the increasingly high-pitched warnings from the Bother Lady on the public address system about the dangers of being out in the weather.
This was around the time that I checked West Penn Power’s outage reporting website and discovered that the power was off at home.
After about 40 minutes of this misery, we were advised that the show would come back on with John Fogerty (the other headliner) to appear next. This was quite cheering to me, as I’d just had the only meltdown (a minor one) I was to experience that evening, in the face of numerous friendly texts from folks on different continents, in several time zones:
I hope you’re having a marvelous time!
Enjoy yourselves! Wish I was there with you!
Can’t wait to hear your review! Have Fun!
“Crimenutely,” I groaned. (TBC, that wasn’t actually the word I used). “History repeats itself yet again. I missed George Jones because he was drunk, and I missed Merle Haggard because he was dead, and I’m about to miss Willie Nelson because of the only thing that could possibly keep the two of us apart–an Act of God!”
Still, out came Fogerty and the band. He was great. I didn’t realize he’s been engaged in a decades-long fight to get his songs back so he can perform them himself. Apparently, he won this past January, so we heard several old standards until (after “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) the show was called again.
This time the public address lady advised that we might want to take shelter in the bathrooms (not something I’ve heard from a venue host before). So we checked the weather app again to discover that tornadoes had landed in the immediate area, and we were now under a tornado warning.
We decamped to the bathrooms, which were very substantial concrete block construction, to wait out the worst of it, then returned to the pavilion to find that more people had left–so we could move further forward and get even better seats–to await the next chapter.
It came pretty quickly, around 9 p.m., when the Bother Lady reasserted herself, said that the program had been truncated, and that WILLIE NELSON would appear at 9:15! Rapturous joy ensued among those happy few still in the arena.
A few minutes later, stage crew folks appeared to start to take down the Fogerty set and construct the Willie set. And then, a wonderful surprise–John Fogerty came back out, with just his old guitar (the one from Woodstock).
He said he wasn’t in charge of the weather or the decisions, but since he hadn’t finished his set, he’d like to entertain us while the Willie folks were getting ready behind him, and we had a wonderful 15 minutes of CCR’s greatest hits, and the standard “Cotton Fields Back Home” singalong. It was glorious, and if things had ended there, I’d always be sad about missing Willie, but I’d have felt I attended a worthwhile event.
But things didn’t end there, and out he came!
Gosh. I remember when “Whiskey River” was a rousing anthem. This wasn’t. But it was Willie, and that’s good enough for me.
He’s showing his age, and looks like nothing so much as a friendly garden gnome. But the twinkle, the imp of perversity, is still there. And he sang many of his old standards and a few new ones. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
His son Micah (The Particle Kid) shared the stage, along with a drummer, a bassist, and a harmonica accompanist. All of them took great care of their frail and indomitable headliner. It was a joy to behold.
We ended with another singalong, in this case, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and then it was time to get on the road (again). My little party drove through the gates of home at about midnight, to discover that the power had been restored (Alleluia By and By!) about 20 minutes prior.
I fell into bed. I woke up early on Sunday to my sister’s WhatsApp concern that I’d returned home safely. Before I responded, I checked the news and discovered that three tornadoes had touched down in Washington County, two of them very close to home, and that the little town of Claysville, about three miles down the road had seen tennis-ball size hail.
I guess I missed the worst of it.
And Willie and I lifted the curse.
Please share your own most trying entertainment experience, in which you’re glad you persevered against the odds.Published in