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Willie Nelson throws it down

Citizenís Bank Arena, Ontario, Cal., June 24, 2011

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Similar to the way fans gave Merle Haggard a hero's welcome at 2010's Stagecoach Festival, this Southern California stop on Willie Nelson's Country Throwdown tour offered folks the opportunity to give the redheaded one a great big 'thank you' for all he's given country music.

Although most all the acts on the bill are closely tied to the Nashville country music establishment, this was by no means any quiet, acoustic day of music. Instead, it was a collection of artists playing very loud music.

On a day where volume was a factor in nearly every set, Nelson proved that an esteemed body of work also speaks volumes. Opening with Whiskey River, Nelson and his regular Family Band burned through a set mainly comprised of hits. Many times throughout his performance, Nelson let the venue turn on the house lights so the crowed could carry the tune, which occurred on Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys and On The Road Again.

Nelson was in fine voice, although he never really stretches his vocal cords all that much. It's always been about Nelson's slightly behind the beat, or in front of the beat phrasing, that makes the man's singing uniquely wonderful. And that special phrasing was especially displayed on the autobiographical Me and Paul. Its lyric talks about the trials and tribulations of the road, as well as what it's like to be constantly under the scrutiny of the law. Ironically, even at his advanced age, Nelson, the pot-smoking advocate, still has run-ins with the law now and again.

When Jamey Johnson preceded Nelson on the main stage, it was a bit of a revelation how similar Johnson is to the headliner. Like Nelson, Johnson doesn't say all that much from the stage. He's also not any frilly singer. As does Nelson, Johnson mostly lets his excellent song lyrics speak for themselves. He opened with High Cost of Living, and proceeded to craft a set that was long on extended, largely unfamiliar songs, before closing with favorites like In Color and Give It Away.

Along the way, he sang a duet with Lukas Nelson on Raining In My Heart, which sure didn't sound much like the old Buddy Holly hit. Although his spot on the program may have tried the audience's patience in places, Johnson's stage appearance ultimately added up to a lot of rewarding musical variety - from folk, to blues to honky-tonk country - packed into one set.

Both Lee Brice and Randy Houser emphasized blues-rock in their respective sets. Houser threw in a little Muddy Waters blues, while Brice - accompanied by Lukas Nelson, Willie's son, on guitar - brought down the house with a roaring version of Jimi Hendrix's Red House.

Although Houser's turn was more powerful, musically, Brice's time was much more personal. Along with the bit hit Like Crazy, Brice sang and talked about the pressures of being raised in a religious home and trying to find his own spiritual values in a crazy, mixed up world. In the end, it was difficult not to empathize with the man.

The Festival Stage was actually an impromptu stage set up in the parking lot outside the arena. Surrounded by venders, this stage spotlighted up-and-comers on one side, while the Bluebird Café Tent presented a sextet of Nashville songwriters on the other end.

These same Café songwriters also received main state time later in the night. Brantley Gilbert had the devil horns waving vigorously during his hard-rocking set. Flanked by an electric guitarist on his left, and a bassist on his right, with a drummer in the back, Gilbert proved why he has become such a fruitful song source for Jason Aldean. He sang both Dirt Road and My Kind of Party, and his original versions just as well as the hit renditions. He may uncomfortably stretch the sonic definition of country music - it sure sounded like hard Southern rock to these ears - but he has certainly found an enthusiastic audience that is really into what he's doing.

Craig Campbell was the most typical mainstream artist on the Festival Stage this afternoon. Drawing from his self-titled debut album, Campbell played radio songs I Bought It, Family Man and Fish, as well as a medley of some of his favorite country songs. He came off likeable and pleasant, but on a day where loud guitars ruled, he sometimes seemed a little like a fish out of water.

Lukas Nelson showed why he is a chip off the old block. He sings with that same nasal tone, and - like dad - is something of a guitar hero with his electric guitar. In fact, he also played with Gilbert and his father during the festival, in addition to his aforementioned spots with Johnson and Brice. Before bringing his sister onstage for a duet, Nelson - dressed in a green Led Zeppelin t-shirt, appropriately - even sang a song about smoking pot. Like father, like son.

All of the Bluebird Café songwriters performed well, although Dave Pahanish made the biggest impression with his original version of American Ride, a big hit for Toby Keith, which had the audience singing along when he sang it on the main stage. However, Erin Enderlin also brought a sweetness to Last Call, a song Lee Ann Womack recorded, when she sang it herself.

Although one could quibble with just how country Willie Nelson's Country Throwdown actually was, there's no argument that it was packed with a fulfilling day of quality music. The guy spotted in the Dave Alvin t-shirt pretty much said it all: You could say this was a show for people that love a lot of artists associated with country music, yet wouldn't go so far as to call themselves diehard country music fans.