Words & Images by: L. Paul Mann
Willie Nelson :: 09.23.10 :: Santa Barbara Bowl :: Santa Barbara, CA
Living legend" is an oft-overused phrase in the music world, but 76-year- old Willie Nelson has surely earned the title. The proponent of American roots country music has created relevant music for close to 60 years while touring relentlessly. His bigger than life personal experiences and iconic outlaw image also help to bolster his legendary status.
Modern country-oriented rocker Ryan Bingham played an opening set with his band The Dead Horses. Singing in his trademark gravel voice, Bingham set the tone for the evening, playing a low-key set. The 29-year-old Academy Award winning singer-songwriter has been a regular on the festival circuit the last few years, often surrounded by indie rockers, where his concerts tend to be more rock 'n' roll in tone. At the Bowl, he offered a more intimate, almost folk sound. Bandmates Corby Schaub (guitar, mandolin), Elijah Ford (bass) and Matthew Smith (drums) followed Bingham's lead playing with a subdued style that highlighted Bingham's unique vocal skills and allowed an appreciative audience to absorb his masterful lyrics.
Shortly before dark, Nelson sauntered onstage with Trigger, his ragged acoustic guitar. Like Bingham, Nelson has played countless large music festival over the last few years and toured with a ramped-up band that gives a rock & roll road show quality to recent his live performances. However, his current tour offers a quieter show, something akin to a jazz club or honky tonk affair.
He largely played the same set his fans have come to expect over the years. Whiskey River" was followed by Still Is Still Moving To Me," an almost mandatory opening pair for any Willie concert. But with a toned down band, this show offered a much more intimate and surprisingly more interesting view of the iconic songwriter's talents. His twangy old guitar was prominent in the mix and his raspy vocals were easier to decipher and follow than usual. With fans hanging on his every word, the ability to hear his lyrics more succinctly seemed to bind the crowd more tightly to their favorite musical outlaw. His band included his little sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, longtime drummer Paul English on a simple single snare drum, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Billy English, Bee Spears and Jody Payne on backing vocals. With Nelson's voice & guitar in the forefront of the subdued arrangments, mandatory classics like the Nelson-penned Patsy Cline hit Crazy" and On The Road Again" had folks dancing in the aisles and singing every line.
After the show, appreciative fans filed past Nelson's biodiesel tour bus with wide smiles for the American icon that never seems to tire of touring.
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