The Wheeler Opera House isn’t known as a place where patrons stand up in front of their seats to shake their hips to the music or dance in the aisles.
But that all changed for two hours on Saturday night when the legendary Texas songster Jerry Jeff Walker and his three bandmates alternately rocked and serenaded the audience inside the 124-year-old venue.
Jimmy Ibbotson, a Roaring Fork Valley resident and longtime member of the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band — which had a hit in 1970 with Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” — opened the show. His short set was interrupted, however, when a member of the audience became ill and required medical attention.
Backed by Chris Gage on guitar, Steve Samuel on drums and Brad Fordham on bass, the 71-year-old Walker started later than expected, but on familiar ground, rolling quickly through the upbeat “Gettin’ By.”
A masterful and engaging storyteller, he followed the trademark opener with a tale about Hondo Crouch, a rancher and folklorist who bought the Hill Country town of Luckenbach, Texas, in 1970 and opened a dance hall there. Then he launched into “The Pickup Truck Song,” a sing-along about the joys of driving around aimlessly with Hondo, and in later years with his children, making “a run to the county dump” or the post office “to check out the mail.”
Walker has delighted audiences for nearly six decades, and by the time he was into his third number, a raucous version of “L.A. Freeway,” the crowd was already hooked, standing up to clap and cheer and dance.
He brought out Ibbotson — who provided much of the evening’s unnecessary comic relief — to assist on the poignant and popular “Mr. Bojangles,” then shifted into high gear again with “Trashy Women.”
A slow and moving version of “Little Bird” — a tale of lovers who drift apart, but still are connected by a delicate creature that flies back and forth between their windows — was one of the night’s highlights.
Unfortunately, he followed it with his only misstep of the evening, Steve Fromholz’s “Singin’ the Dinosaur Blues.” Walker forgot some of the lyrics, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.
His odyssey continued with a lot of the known and a little of the unfamiliar: “Man in the Big Hat,” “Candles and Cut Flowers,” “The Rain Song,” “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother),” “Jaded Lover,” “London Homesick Blues.” He supplied other tunes as well, deftly linking all of them with funny stories and banter with the sometimes-rowdy audience.
He closed the show with a few covers, including Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” and Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” Many fans ditched their reserved seats and crowded the floor near the stage during the encores.
It was a special night, a post-Valentine’s Day lovefest engineered by a charismatic gypsy songman who has the unique ability to make people smile or laugh or cry with relative ease.