Willie Nelson at the Santa Barbara Bowl. (July 22, 2015)

It was the kind of concert that might prompt an English teacher to assign a compare and contrast paper on the idea of Old Weird American Music. On the one hand, opener Alison Krauss and her significantly amazing band Union Station took basically defunct forms of American music—old-timey and bluegrass—and made them more interesting than rock and roll. It helped that Jerry Douglas, the God of dobro, was there filling in with washes of color and even supplying the evening’s best off-the-wall quote. “I think I like the Lobero better.” But Krauss and company transformed the quirkiest of hoary tunes, like the big murder ballad “Wild Bill Jones” into musical cinematic masterpiece, which Krauss later described as a “salad of misery,” the kind of stuff they like best. And speaking of cinema and misery, of course they rocked the house with “Man of Constant Sorrow” and finished with “Down to the River to Pray.” Both, of course, from the Coen Brother’s O Brother Where Art Thou, on which this band figured strongly. Maybe the music is old-timey but the vibe is cool current.

On the other hand, Willie Nelson comes straight from the heart of a musical idiom that never seems to die, Country Western. Yet most of the music he sang — either his own or a few well-placed covers — were drawn from the Golden Age 1960s era of Merle, Hank, and Patsy Cline. Of course, it was Willie who wrote “Crazy” for Cline back during the Kennedy years, and his live version was gulped and spat out, including his herky-jerky acoustic guitar solo. (All of his strums and picks were weird and fun.)

The strangest compare and contrast note of the evening, though, both Douglas and Nelson broke into jazz songs, the former did a Chick Correa song, while the latter played with the Django Reinhart songbook. All in all, Nelson was a warm-hearted machine, never once stopping during the nearly 25-song set, which covered all the big hits like “On the Road Again” but none of the singer-songwriter era songs from Red-Headed Stranger (alas). But it was the real deal, even though Douglas called him “a country icon,” at 82, he’s more like a breathing embodiment of country. And for that there’s no comparison.


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