GILFORD, N.H. — At ease, everyone. Willie just needed a little time to catch his breath.
Willie Nelson, the 86-year-old paragon of American music, resumed his Outlaw Music Festival tour on Friday at the Bank of NH Pavilion near Lake Winnipesaukee, after missing more than a month of shows due to respiratory trouble.
In an efficient, workmanlike one-hour set, he and his longtime Family band played 20 songs that paid tribute to Nelson’s forebears (Hank Williams, Django Reinhardt) and some of his old running partners (Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard). Along the way, they sprinkled in a couple of choice cuts from Nelson’s own long list of signature songs.
The tour, which began in June, has offered an unusual interpretation of the definition of “outlaw” country music, with a rotating pool of guests including Phil Lesh, Dawes, and the Avett Brothers. For the New Hampshire date, Nelson’s supporting acts included Bonnie Raitt and the flawless bluegrass singer and fiddler Alison Krauss.
With little comment beyond a hello, Nelson and his band took the stage just before 10 p.m., more than five hours after the night’s performances began. Huddled close in front of an enormous red, white, and blue Texas flag, the musicians — including Willie’s older sister Bobbie on piano, harmonica master Mickey Raphael, and drummer Paul English brushing a single snare — built a spare, cozy bed for Nelson’s voice and guitar.
It took him a few minutes to settle in. Opening with his customary version of “Whiskey River,” Nelson’s voice croaked, and the nylon strings on Trigger, his battered old Martin acoustic guitar, squawked. But he soon grew comfortable, after asking for some audience participation on “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” As sister Bobbie led the band on the saloon-y instrumental “Down Yonder,” Nelson tossed his straw hat into the crowd.
Mid-set he sang two of his biggest crossover hits, “On the Road Again” and his cover of “You Were Always on My Mind.” Maybe now more than ever, though, Nelson seems perfectly content to act as a human jukebox of country music history. On this night his selections ranged from Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” (1950) to an amusing version of Mac Davis’s “It’s Hard to Be Humble” (1980), which Nelson recorded for his latest album.
His wry sense of humor certainly hasn’t taken a rest. He got a rise out of his rapt audience on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and he savored one line in particular while singing Billy Joe Shaver’s “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train”: “I wasn’t born no yesterday.”
Nope, he was not. He alluded to that fact with a little more introspection on a brief encore medley of the backwoods hymns “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away,” with Raitt joining onstage. It was enough to take your breath away.
There were other highlights throughout the day, from Krauss’s version of “Gentle on My Mind” to Raitt’s perfect pairing with the INXS hit “Need You Tonight.” But the show’s finest moment may have come when Krauss joined Raitt onstage to sing a crystalline version of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” which Raitt, who got her start on the Cambridge club scene, first recorded in 1974.
“Come here so I can look over at those beautiful eyes,” Raitt said as she welcomed her duet partner onstage.
OUTLAW MUSIC FESTIVAL
With Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and Alison Krauss
At Bank of NH Pavilion, Gilford, N.H., Friday