"While Willie Nelson is still a solid player and performer, seeing him these days is about nostalgia for a lot of people. These aren't the best versions of songs like "Crazy" and "Aint It Funny," but seeing Nelson up on stage performing them is as heartwarming as ever."
Even at 78, Willie Nelson can throw a party. The red-headed stranger brought his traveling Country Throwdown festival to Red Rocks last night for a beer-drinkin', weed-smoking romp under the Colorado stars. Showcasing nearly a dozen country musicians, the festival is reminiscent of Nelson's historic 4th of July picnics in the 1970s and 1980s in Texas, where he would showcase country stars and up-and-comers.
Mississippi's Randy Houser took the main stage around 7:30 p.m. with his pop country. His guitarist looked like he had a Slash fetish, wearing a top hat and smoking an old man's pipe as he strutted around the stage. Houser's music is a mix of tight-jean, Affliction T-shirt-wearing Country Music Television flashiness, with just a touch of down-home redneck thrown in for good measure. The band opened with its rock-heavy "Whistlin' Dixie," with the words sliding out in Houser's thick Southern drawl over dense organ lines and a thundering bass.
Although most of the crowd was still finding seats or just sitting down during Houser's set, this one redneck dude a few rows down was loving it, singing along with his nearly toothless grin. A few songs in, Houser mentioned that the first time he visited Red Rocks was during a visit to his late father in Aurora. He dedicated a slow, acoustic number, "Somewhere South of Memphis," to his dad. After the somber moment, Houser lit up the audience with a cover of Muddy Waters's "Champagne and Reefer."
The version was actually identical to the sped-up, rocked-out version played by the Ian Moore Band on the 1995 NORML benefit CD, Hempiliation. It was a good choice considering the weed-friendly nature of Willie Nelson fans, though not everyone in the band seems to agree. In the audience after the set, Houser's faux-slash guitarist looked at me like I had two heads when I tried to pass him a joint. Houser's set was short, coming in around 45 minutes, and while it was a relatively flawless set, the band's sound is more fitting for a crowded honky-tonk than wide-open Red Rocks.
Between sets, singer-songwriters Brent Cobb, Dani Flowers and Adam Hood took the stage with acoustic guitars. The three took turns singing backup on each other's songs, ending with Flowers's take on a Willie classic, "Daddies, Please Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," in which she urged dads to not "let mama ruin them makin' sissies and such." Behind the singers, crew members slid drum risers, amps and keyboards into place for Jamey Johnson.
Johnson is a burly, biker-looking guy from Alabama with a long, thick beard. He would look just as comfortable on stage with a metal band as he does behind a pedal steel player. Johnson took the stage around 8:30 in what was the highlight of the night for a lot of people around me. One woman said he represented everything good about "real" country music. Another told me he is the current king of "outlaw country."
What I saw was more Southern rock akin to the Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic. He opened with the bluesy "High Cost of Living," his gruff voice rumbling over the silk-smooth pedal-steel guitar. By the end of the first song, Johnson had sold me on his music. He easily transitioned from the two-step shuffle and high lonesome wail of "Lonely at the Top" to the thumping country rock of Waylon Jennings's "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" to Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried."
Even more impressive was the way Johnson blended the intro acoustic melody of Metallica's "Unforgiven" "Nothing Else Matters" into the dark, moody Bob Seger song "Turn the Page" toward the end of his set. Minus the corny saxophone in Seger's version, Johnson's cover was spot on, down to the emotion and pain he brought out of Seger's lyrics and making the song as much Johnson's as Seger's. Johnson closed out his set with an audience sing-along of "In Color." A group of women near me were falling over each other singing the line "You should've seen it in color" at the top of their lungs. While Nelson's set later in the night was the real reason most people were there, Johnson could easily carry a headliner role.
Nelson took the stage just before 10 p.m., waving briefly to the audience as he strapped on his decaying Martin guitar and went full speed into "Whisky River." Painfully off-tempo, the band struggled to find Nelson through the first train-wrecked solo. Always one to play to his own time signature in a song, Nelson lost the band quickly before abruptly going into the next verse.
The song evened out as on-stage monitors were turned up and rusty fingers got oiled up. By the third song, "Beer for My Horses," the band was in sync and the smell of pot smoke became heavier and heavier over the venue. An older couple behind the soundboard was passing joints and singing along like they were in their twenties again.
While Willie Nelson is still a solid player and performer, seeing him these days is about nostalgia for a lot of people. These aren't the best versions of songs like "Crazy" and "Ain't It Funny," but seeing Nelson up on stage performing them is as heartwarming as ever. That's not to say the old man doesn't still have chops -- as his jazzy solos during "Ain't it Funny" proved. His unique voice is also still there, giving a unique spin on the blues through songs like "Night Life."
Nelson's sister, Bobbie, has been backing her brother on stage for decades with her saloon-style grand piano work. Willie took a minute to introduce Bobbie, who took a short boogie-woogie piano solo. Afterward, Willie introduced drummer Paul English, who has been backing Willie on stage and in life for more than forty years, and the band went into Willie's tribute to their friendship, "Me and Paul," about all the trouble they had been in over their long friendship.
Lukas Nelson, Willie's son, came out to play with his dad on a version of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood" -- ironic, considering the Lone Star State is in one of its worst droughts ever. Lukas is a solid guitar player who can definitely channel his inner SRV on the Strat. But more eerie is his nasal singing voice, which is nearly identical to his father's. The two trading off verses sounded like 2011 Willie singing with himself from the 1960s.
The rest of the setlist was peppered with more of Nelson's greatest hits, including sing-along versions of "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "On the Road Again" and "You Were Always on My Mind." I didn't expect the band to veer much from that type of song selection, but it's unfortunate that songs like "Georgia," "'I Can Get Off on You" or even the epic "Red Headed Stranger" didn't make the cut this tour. And while it's a long shot, hearing some tunes like Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" off of Nelson's reggae album, Countryman, would have been awesome.
That said, hearing ripping versions of "Good Hearted Woman" and "Bloody Mary" more than made up for any forgotten songs. Nelson closed out his hour-and-a-half set gospel-style, leading the band, audience and members of the opening acts who had joined him on stage through "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Before the band had finished, Nelson waved goodbye to the crowd and left the stage. The house lights came up within seconds of the band finishing, ending any chance of an encore.
Personal Bias: I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and consider him a musical hero as well as a cannabis hero. By the Way: Nelson is referred to as the "80-year-old Ninja" by his crew for his ability to sneak off stage and get to his bus without anyone noticing. Random Quote: (Fat, bearded old guy in overalls ogling girls in Daisy Duke shorts) "If I'd have worn my shorts, that's how I'd look."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Willie Nelson 06.22.11 | Red Rocks Morrison, CO
Whiskey River (notes are garbled, possibly "Stay a Little Longer") Still Moving Beer for My Horses Good Hearted Woman Ain't It Funny Crazy Night Life Bobbie Solo Me and Paul Texas Flood (with Lukas Nelson) Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys Shoe Shine Man Angel Flew too Close to the Sun On the Road Again You Were Always on my Mind You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore Bloody Mary Morning Will the Circle Be Unbroken