Willie Nelson has been making records for over 40 years, tackling everything from western swing to pop standards, and he managed to squeeze most of them into this rambling show. He ambled onstage in jeans and trainers, twin ponytails tumbling down his back from under the red bandana. With his trademark battered acoustic guitar, he's still nurturing his persona as the ancient bard of country music.
He seemed to be pacing himself, though at 67 I guess he's entitled to. While he played virtually every song anybody could think of from his back catalogue, he tended to play them in memory-jogging snippets, as if to confirm that he was indeed the real Willie Nelson, but not wishing to go into too much detail. It seemed that barely 15 minutes had passed, and we'd already heard Whiskey River, Stay a Little Longer, Crazy, Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away, Help Me Make It Through the Night and Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.
With the aid of his trusty Family Band, featuring his sister Bobbie at the piano, Willie has devised his own idiosyncratic performing style. The band play an elastic, free-form swing, giving Nelson room for his Spanish-flavoured guitar solos and letting him slip in and out of songs at will, cueing the band by sticking a finger up in the air. Instead of a drumkit, they have Paul English using wire brushes to play a solitary snare drum. His continual shifts between a straight 4/4 beat and limping dotted rhythms can be baffling, but they give Nelson the flexibility he is looking for.
Nelson seemed to have saved his strongest performances for a handful of songs, like the melancholy I Never Cared for You or the beautiful Healing Hands of Time. Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty never sounded more mysteriously evocative. Nelson once duetted with Neil Young on a song called Are There Any More Real Cowboys? Well, there's at least one.
•: Willie Nelson plays the Hammersmith Apollo, London W6 (020-7416 6080), tonight.