If Willie Nelson has lost a lick at 81, it was not evident Tuesday night when the living legend presided over a first-rate night of music at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. The beaming, braided, bandanna-ed Nelson topped a bill that included rising star Kacey Musgraves and stalwart roots and bluegrass outfit Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas. Also, a movie star dropped by: Johnny Depp, in town shooting the Whitey Bulger film “Black Mass,” joined Nelson onstage for his entire 85-minute set.
“You got Johnny over here playing some guitar,” was all Nelson said about Depp, who happily strummed along as Nelson and his Family Band — including harmonica ace Mickey Raphael and sister Bobbie on piano — amiably ambled through Nelson’s estimable back catalog and that of some other folks as well.
Depp — who previously sat in with Nelson and band in Austin, Tx., in March — shunned the spotlight apart from a brief solo, and engaged in some guitar call-and-response with Nelson’s son and guitarist Lukas during a soulful, smoking take on “Texas Flood.”
Willie Nelson and the Family Band, With Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, and Kacey Musgraves
If Nelson’s setlist has calcified in recent years — especially relative to how prolific and intriguing he has been in the studio — it’s hard to argue with choices like “Crazy,” “On the Road Again,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and the sublime “Always On My Mind,” and the obvious pleasure he still derives from playing them.
A few more Nelson originals would’ve been welcome, but a Hank Williams medley was great fun, and Nelson has earned the right to play what he pleases. Refreshingly though, he did include a few newer tunes, including his rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” sung as a tender duet with Lukas, and “Band of Brothers” from his just-released album of the same name.
The night came to a rollicking close as Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf joined Nelson for big-group performances of several tunes, including “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Krauss and her own longtime merry band of brothers held down the middle slot with their typical virtuosic brilliance. They played a pristine if at times a bit polite set that traversed fleet picking, pop tunefulness, and high lonesome poignance, including the spectral “Ghost In This House” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Musgraves charmed the crowd with tracks from her sublime debut, “Same Trailer Different Park,” including the let-your-freak-flag-fly anthem “Follow Your Arrow.”