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Published August 06, 2011, 10:40 AM

No surprise, Willie plays like a legend

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – There were no surprises when Willie Nelson opened his Saturday evening set at WE Fest with “Whiskey River,” but it was still a thrill for fans of the country music legend.

"DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – There were no surprises when Willie Nelson opened his Saturday evening set at WE Fest with “Whiskey River,” but it was still a thrill for fans of the country music legend.

The 78-year-old singer-guitarist was all business, kicking out signature tunes from his catalog. He’s been opening with “Whiskey River” for decades, but the opening notes he played with harmonica player Mickey Raphael sent fans running up as far as they could and pumping fists in the air.

Two songs later, when he lit into “Beer for My Horses,” his duet with Toby Keith, those fists were replaced by beer cans and cups.

Nelson ripped through 16 songs in his first 30 minutes on stage and never really slowed down, mixing in his own tunes with covers from great American songwriters like Hank Williams, Arlo Guthrie and Hoagy Carmichael.

While other artists here engage the crowd with stories (Blake Shelton seemed to talk nearly as much as he sang), Nelson and his band just play. And play. And play.

At 78, Willie shows no signs of slowing down. While he had to cancel an appearance here a few years ago, he was in fine form, and his skills as a guitarist seem to be only improving. Like his signature vocal phrasing, Nelson’s playing seems almost as inspired by jazz as country.

The Jumbotrons captured his quick picking and string-bending on his well-loved, signed and scarred guitar, Trigger. Cameras were particularly helpful when Nelson took a solo, watching him work deftly through “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Always on My Mind.”

Fans of guitar rock were treated to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s three-axe attack, featuring the one remaining original member, Gary Rossington.

The group, now led by singer Jonny Van Zant, brother of original singer, the late Ronnie Van Zant, ground through its swampy brand of Southern rock, including “That Smell,” “Give Me Three Steps” and the anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.” American flags in the crowd waved when the group dedicated “Simple Man” to the troops.

Fans jumped to their feet and danced to Skynyrd’s style of electric boogie.

And all of those who relished finally yelling “Free Bird” at the one band that actually wanted to hear that request were rewarded when the group returned after a break to close with the song. The blistering solos at the thundering end didn’t disappoint.

The vocal pop-country group Sugarland closed the second night of the festival, opening with an energetic “All We Are” and “Stuck Like Glue” as this version was going to press.

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