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Willie Nelson didn’t have to be onstage to get his first ovation Tuesday night at the “Django and Jimmie” concert featuring Nelson and Merle Haggard.

In the middle of Haggard’s set, a roadie appeared from nowhere and stood the battered guitar against a stand. The country icon waved grandly at the instrument and said to the audience, “Willie’s guitar!” to cheers.

The audience treated the two old cowboys as heroes, and rightly so. Both have conquered wild lives, bouts with alcohol and the law (or the IRS) and come out the other end playing and singing their hearts out as if they were teenagers.

After his band the Strangers (including youngest son Ben Haggard on lead guitar) played a few songs, Haggard, 78, walked out gingerly at 7:30 p.m. to a standing ovation, to do a set of his classics. It was apt that for this show in the downtown of the city that drew so many Southerners for jobs, he kicked off with “Big City,” one of the best of the genre of homesick Southerners.

“I’m tired of this dirty old city, entirely too much work and never enough play,” he sang in that mordant, instantly recognizable baritone. “And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks, think I’ll walk off my steady job today.”

We’re working off the third or so generation of male singers influenced by Haggard’s distinctive voice, and to hear the original is something. You can hear his clipped, emotional delivery in country stars such as Dwight Yoakam, and in the realm of rock singers, Bruce Springsteen.

Much like Frank Sinatra’s voice on that very stage, after two or three songs Haggard’s pipes grew stronger and warmer.

But Sinatra never sang lovingly of marijuana, or picked up a fiddle and played it effortlessly, as Haggard did, to the crowd’s delight. He ran through “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried,” “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink,” and “Working Man’s Blues.”

When Nelson, 82, came out to join his guitar, Trigger, he and Haggard performed a song from their new album, “Django & Jimmie” — “It’s All Going to Pot” — as well as their 1983 hit “Pancho and Lefty” and a jovial rendition of Haggard’s biggest hit, 1969’s “Okie from Muskogee.”

“My next song is about marijuana, marijuana, marijuana,” Haggard quipped, kicking into “Okie,” which famously derides hippies, pot-smoking and draft dodgers, sticking up for “squares,” manly dress and wholesome entertainment. Clearly Haggard’s views on pot have evolved, at any rate.

After a brief intermission, at 9:13 p.m. a Lone Star flag unfurled and Willie Nelson came out in a black T-shirt and jeans singing “Whiskey River” with a stripped down version of his touring band, just a piano player, drummer, percussionist, harmonica player and bassist. Willie’s guitar was the only one, until Haggard came out to rejoin him.

Nelson sang “Still is Still Moving to Me,” barking out the song title quickly so he could get down to business, then “Good Hearted Woman, Two-Timing Man.”

All he had to do was yell “Mama!” in that Texas twang, and the audience responded eagerly with “don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” A human jukebox, he rolled through decades of songs, “Night Life,” “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground,” “Me and Paul,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “On the Road Again,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Crazy” (a hit first for Patsy Cline).

He even took time for a short set of Hank Williams tunes, including “Hey Good Looking” “Move it On Over” and “Jambalaya.”

This is only the second show after Nelson had to cancel several weekend gigs because of a minor medical condition, but he looked as vigorous as he ever does, and he didn’t shorten up his set.

Some half an hour into his solo set the bandana came out, although he tossed it into the crowd, and did that with several subsequent bandanas.

Nelson’s habit of rushing the beat when he sings may have developed because he was anxious to get to the picking, but it’s as part of his idiosyncratic style now as his guitar picking, and much like a jazz singer chooses his spot in the mix. And unlike a lot of pop/rock complainers, he doesn’t appear to tire of singing his classics (and those of others), maybe because he rarely plays them the same way twice.

Just in case you didn’t get the message the first few times, he sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

As befits Nelson’s philosophy, the evening ended on a spiritual note, with Nelson and Haggard playing “I Saw The Light,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Like his well-used guitar, Nelson’s voice is worn, yet resonates with character and warmth. His music is a uniquely American blend drawing from jazz, gospel and the music of the mountains. Catch it while you can.

swhitall@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/swhitall

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