Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown Arrives in Ontario, California
Package shows and outdoor festivals have long been a way to revive and rev up careers in music spent on the road for long stretches of time. For Willie Nelson and his son, Lukas, this summer’s tour Country Throwdown affords them both this opportunity, respectively. Willie has long lost the ability to draw a capacity crowd to arenas throughout the country on his own. Instead, he has wisely shown up at county fairs and paired with other artists like Bob Dylan. As an artist he has made his mark during several eras of country and pop music over the last fifty years sometimes setting and sometimes shaping trends. With his earliest songs, “Crazy,” “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” in the early sixties, he gave such country legends as Patsy Cline and Ray Price great material to showcase their considerable vocal talents.
Along with Hank Williams he is among the few country songwriters who wrote songs that crossed over to the pop charts. He dared develop much of his own sound outside of the more conservative Nashville establishment of his day and brought a rock sensibility to stage persona, country playing and recording. Eventually this became known as the ‘Outlaw Movement,’ but what he and a handful of others including Waylon Jennings did during the 70’s ushered in a new era for country music and can now be considered an important landmark in the development of Americana music. He helped return the music to its roots. Like much of the best American music of the last century, he took it out of the hands of coorperate commercial calculations and returned it to its simplist and best form.
The success of 1975’s Redheaded Stranger in spite of being a stripped down acoustically based album, which some thought should only have been a demo at the time and paralleled rock’s punk movement, stunned the country music world of its day. Stranger was also one of the first and most successful country concept albums. In the late 70’s at a time when he could have gone with an artistic and commercial safety net, his risky album, Stardust, found the singer at his peak when against popular advice, he recorded an album of interpretations of jazz/pop standards from the 30’s and 40’s. Never had a country artist dare record songs by songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin. The result was a much deserved Grammy for Album of the Year, again crossing over from country to pop charts. Today Willie has justifiably attained American Treasure status as an icon of our musical culture representing the best of our contemporary and historical heritage.
Even though mainstream country radio was present at this week’s Throwdown in Ontario, California, you’re more likely to hear songs about Willie than to hear songs by Willie on their stations. Even so, Willie has found his place in the broader Americana music world and on more relevant muic outlets like XM. He has also been given well-deserved respect and accolades from the multitude of musicians he has influenced, everyone from Snoop Dogg to Nora Jones.
The 2011 Throwdown allows Willie to share the bill with current major country artists and bring his son along for the ride. Lukas has the golden opportunity to get on the stage and develop his persona, his music, his craft and his performing skills. And get on stage he does. Today, in addition to his own band, The Promise of the Real, he shared the stage sitting in with no less than four other bands including replacing the now retired Jody Payne on lead guitar in Willie’s family band.
As one of the acts opening the show outside the arena, Lukas stormed the stage with his own energetic brand of blues-rock and soulful country ballads. His stage antics resembles a young Pete Townsend more than his famous easy going father. He leaps, knees in the air and even plays with his teeth. But, this is not for effect and he’s certainly not on stage only because of his pedigree. He takes the stage and plays the guitar with a skill and passion reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughn. His songs are haunting, stirring and authentic closely resembling Willie’s best work without any sense of imitation. Songs like “The Sound of Your Memory,” perfectly illustrate this.
The remainder of the outdoor part of the event was made up of some mainstream(Craig Cambell) and some renegade country(Brantley Gilbert).With two outdoor stage areas, one for the bands and the other termed, Bluebird Cafe, which featured young promising singer-songwriters including Adam Hood, Erin Enderlin and Brent Cobb doing a traditional songwriter’s guitar pull in the round. Each of the singer-songwriters also returned for acoustic sets between acts on the main stage later during the arena show. This emphasis on songwriting craft and performance delivered solo-acoustic gave the event a sense of depth and served as a reminder that no matter how adorned a country song is with instrumentation and slick arrangement, it still all comes down to the singer and the song.
Inside the billing was mixed. Lee Brice opened with a sturdy band and stage show. He represents the country star who focuses on stronger than average material. His songs lean toward a Bob Seeger, Springsteen feel but he lacks the vision of those artists. The onstage highlight was Lukas Nelson appearing on a jam of Hendrix’s blues classic, “Red House.” Nelson’s exchange with Brice’s band was a great moment of unforced intensity. Randy Houser delivered a solid set of country-rock. While he comes on with a strong presence and a gritty vocal power, his material doesn’t resonate with anything beyond the usual themes of mainstream country radio. But his music strikes a chord in favor of strong blues-rock inspired country music and he delivers a dynamic stage performance.
Jamey Johnson proved why he is the most promising country performer out there today. There is a depth to his songs and stories of hard-luck characters and a spiritual longing beneath his material and his performance. His presence and delivery is unique looking like a lost member from one of ZZ-Top’s forgotten tours and strumming and singing his lyric in a casual focused manner like a Zen monk with slow wisdom to reveal. The stories and the traditional country soul comes through each of his songs. But it’s the power behind his songwriting and the delivery of the stories that sneaks up on you and, if you listen, is likely to knock you off your seat. Highlights included his hit, “In Color,” and “High Cost of Living,” and his duet with Lukas Nelson on “Raining in my Heart.” If there is anybody who could begin to fill Waylon’s shoes alongside Willie Nelson it is Jamey Johnson.
Willie Nelson took the stage at 10:00 pm for all too brief hour-long set. At 78, he remains a strong stage presence and a skillful entertainer drawing from his catalogue of hits and legendary songs like “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “On The Road Again,” and “Always On My Mind.” But, the strength of his show remains his rapport with his band as they play the songs they’ve performed together for the last 35 plus years on the road and his obvious love for his audience. Willie understands how to phrase and pace his guitar to bring out the best in jam-based songs like “Bloody Mary Morning,” where he brings the tune to a frenetic peak which brought the audience to their feet. On ballads like “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” his guitar solos almost seem like extensions of his voice. Also notable was his duet with Lukas on “Texas Flood.” Lukas would sing the first line and then Willie would echo the same line, blues style. Most touching was the appearance of Willie’s old drummer pard, Paul English, who came on stage only to play snare and brushes on “Me and Paul,” one of Willie’s story songs written while he and his drummer were touring the country in package shows during the early 60’s. English recently suffered a minor stroke, but he still tours with the band. His brother, Billy English, handles the majority of percussion for the band along with Willie’s son, Micah.
Especially strong was Willie’s his interpretation of “Georgia On My Mind.” It was a perfect blend of country and soul expertly reproduced with a faint echo of Ray Charles’ memory still hovering in the melody and in the tenderness in Willie’s voice. He may tend to gloss over some of the older songs, like “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (basically phoned in), but not “Georgia.”
Playing the top of the bill to so many young performers showed Willie and his band’s sand and is stark example of how in one hour a living artist’s legacy can be demonstrated with an enviable effortlessness and a sense of joy which made many decade-old songs still sound fresh. It’s shows how an American treasure can truly be honored by his audience, his peers and so many artists on the bill who are his musical descendents. It was symbolized in the presence of his 23 year-old son who in a very real way is becoming an extension of his father’s legacy while he is busy creating his own.
Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown continues throughout with upcoming dates in California and Texas.