California on My Mind: Willie Nelson Performs at Big Bridges

“He said he’s been out living things all this time. I just hope he hasn’t outlived his vocal cords,” said an older attendee before entering Bridges Auditorium for Willie Nelson’s Pomona College performance on Thursday night. A musician, actor, and activist, Nelson has been in the public eye for over fifty years. Across the 5Cs, however, most students reacted to the news of his concert with a “Willie who?”

“He’s another generation’s thing,” Nidhi Gandhi PO ’15 said.

Chris Waugh, Director of Bridges Auditorium, sees Willie Nelson differently.

“He has timeless appeal. He’s managed to remain relevant over fifty years of his work,” he said.

Waugh pointed to Nelson’s advocacy of marijuana legalization and referenced his most recent album, which included collaborations with artists like Snoop Dogg and Sheryl Crow, as an example of Nelson’s universality. This past year, the Country Music Association honored Willie Nelson by presenting him with their first Lifetime Achievement Award, which they named in his honor. While this is an acknowledgement of Nelson’s distinguished career, the award implies that Nelson success belongs to history.

It wasn’t just Nelson’s relevancy that troubled students, but also the ticket prices, which ran from $45 to $65.

“There were probably people who wanted to go more who weren’t able to attend,” said Ella Taranto PO ’15, who won two tickets to Nelson’s concert through a drawing out of Bridges’s Facebook and Twitter followers.

“Bridges should really offer a student discount, which they usually do. Then they waste tickets by giving them to people who might not even want them? Preposterous. Willie Nelson is no Taylor Swift—chances are a lot of the winners have not even heard of him or will appreciate his music. I think they should hold a raffle instead,” Sam Jo Yeo PO ’13 said.

According to Waugh, the student reaction to prices was unexpected.

“It took us by surprise, because we had priced the tickets significantly less than at other venues in the area,” he said.

“We’re just hoping to break even with this concert,” said Sharon Kuhn, Events Manager for Bridges, adding that the show was nearly sold-out.

After facing such vehement student opposition to the Willie Nelson ticket prices, the Bridges staff is investigating ways to mitigate the costs to students, such as contacting other college performance art centers to hear how they handle ticket prices.

“It seems like $20 is the magic price point that we most often hear from students. We’re looking at that, frankly, and we’re trying to come up with a win-win situation. We want students to feel supported by the shows we’re putting on at Bridges. We want them to come to the performances,” Waugh said.

Because of these issues, the audience was composed mostly of community members rather than students.

Nelson came onstage to the unfurling of the Texas flag and sweeping red and blue lights. 79 years old and wiry, he captivated the audience, who, despite their age, passionately sang along to tunes like “Beer for My Horses.”

The past is important to Nelson, who has played with the same guitar, Trigger, for over forty years. There is a small hole in the guitar where his strumming fingers have worn away the wood.

Nelson drank from a blue solo cup and threw out hats and bandannas into the audience, earning the roaring approval of the crowd. He sang classics, from “Whiskey River” to the heartbreaking “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and the bouncy “On the Road Again.” He also incorporated some newer work, including “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “Superman,” prompting a man in the front row to unfurl a flag that showed a picture of a marijuana leaf with the words “FIRST AID” underneath.

Community was central throughout the show. Nelson’s little sister played backing piano, and his daughter joined him at the mic for the last few songs. Audience members clapped their hands, crew members shook maracas, and a little boy in the front row stared wide-eyed at Nelson while shaking his hips. A community member whispered that she’d caught one of Nelson’s hats when she was six years old at her first concert in Georgia and was excited to have a front-row seat again.

All of Willie Nelson’s songs are delicately but energetically crafted stories. His music is made of memories. Yet despite belonging to a past generation, the essence of his music still resonates today.

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