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Nelson, Krauss, Musgraves make for a night of singular music

Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston, June 17, 2014

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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This was a special night for Willie Nelson, although chances are a good chunk of the fans had any idea. First off, Nelson, at 81, released his first album of new music since 1996, on Tuesday with the very fine "Band of Brothers." And he also happened to have a guest guitarist sit in with him the entire night, who he simply referred to as "Johnny."

Like pretty much every single Nelson show, he started off with "Whiskey River." The set list was bread and butter Nelson with songs like "Mama's Don't Let You Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "Funny How time Slips Away," "Crazy," "Night Life," On the Road Again" and "Always On My Mind."

Nelson did delve into the new disc way deep into the set with the title track and "Bring It On." Both - Nelson and producer Buddy Cannon penned the two songs - fit in well with the rest of the night. Too bad the prolific Nelson didn't plug the new material even more and instead rested on his past.

Nelson, yet again, showed no signs of aging with a voice in very fine form, assuming you're good with Nelson's voice. His guitar playing also was superb with the acoustic guitar - his longstanding friend, Trigger, the guitar with the hole in it - sounding like he was plugged in. He picked away and attacked his guitar.

The band was a bit of a family affair with son Lukas on lead guitar, and he demonstrated that he might not have earned his keep simply by being the Red Headed Stranger's son. He also seemed to know the blues based on his reading of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood." Brother, Micah helped on percussion. Older sister Bobbie, who is 83, but didn't look it, held down the fort on the piano with a lot of nice runs.

Meanwhile, the English brothers also were part of the festivities with Paul on a simple snare drum and brother Billy on percussion.

And, long-time Nelson band member (aren't they all?) Mickey Raphael blew his harp adeptly as usual.

Then there was that other band member. While the others got their full due, this person was referred to only as "Johnny." He was quiet and unassuming, smiling occasionally. This was a most part-time gig for Johnny because he's spending most of his days here playing Whitey Bulger in the movie "Black Mass," currently being filmed in the greater Boston area. He is better known by his full name, Johnny Depp.

Depp, who played with Nelson at South by Southwest in March, showed guitar skills. He tended to be far more in the background with the light rarely shining on him, but he could most definitely play. Call Depp's star appearance an added treat.

Nelson is quite simply in a league by himself in this day and age when there is pretty much no one doing what he is doing country wise. Singing and playing exceedingly well with a well-trodden repertoire, Nelson at some level is comfort food these days. Low key, even on this night of what could have been even more pumped up excitement, Nelson made it special anyway.

It's been three years since Alison Krauss & Union Station released an album, "Paper Airplane." So, unlike the headliner, Krauss and her ace band did not have anything new to push.

In the hands of Krauss and her most capable band, that was not a problem. Krauss, at 42 and 3 decades into the business, has one of the greatest female voices out there. It is a true instrument of beauty with an ethereal, angelic quality to her vocals whether on "Down to the River to Pray" or "Baby, Now That I Found You."

Krauss also knew how to make for a fun show with her comments throughout, whether introducing band members or telling stories. Krauss was a real natural, knowing she's funny without being very obvious about it.

As is her style, Krauss runs a band. On this night, it meant that Tyminski and Douglas took leads with Tyminski's "Man of Constant Sorrow" drawing much applause. He also offered his take on Avicii's "Hey Brother," which Tyminski sings on the CD. Douglas was simply tremendous in his display of his mastery of the Dobro, providing a lot of fill plus also playing Paul Simons "American Tune" and Chick Corea's "Spain" back to back.

The band members have been around a long time. Even newcomer Douglas, the best Dobro player in the world, has been with her for 17 years. Upright bassist Barry Bales, guitarist/banjo player Ron Block and acoustic guitarist Tyminski were part of the well-oiled, but never dull or canned feeling, machine.

Krauss, unfortunately, chose to truncate several songs, leaving the audience cheated. Otherwise, about the only thing missing from Krauss and Union Station on this night were new songs.

Rounding out the triple bill was Kacey Musgraves, who ought not be opening shows for much longer. She is still touring off her excellent March 2013 release "Same Trailer, Different Park." Musgraves has not enjoyed any big hits, but her album has done well on the charts, and she won the Grammy for Best Country Album earlier this year. She proved to be a perfect fit for the night with her emphasis on traditional country music.

Musgraves is an anomaly these days in country music. First off, there is an emphasis on the songs, which are country instead of pop. Musgraves is far more traditional than just about any of her contemporaries. No one seems to employ a pedal steel these days, but Musgraves utilized one in every song.

She also has a country look about her with cowboy boots, and her backing band wore matching blue jackets with a Nudie-style stylings on their jackets as well (in a neat effect, lights on their jackets also lit up a few times during the night).

Musgraves started with the brand new "The Trailer Song," about nosey neighbors in a slow, lilting country style. Musgraves also played another new song, "High Time," which fit in well with songs from her debut including "It Is What It Is" and the very edgy "Follow Your Arrow."

Fittingly, Musgraves ended with her a capella reading of Roy Rogers' "Happy Trails" with her band standing around her and one mic. It was a fitting ode to her country forbearers.

Indeed, with Musgraves, Krauss and Union Station and Nelson on tap for the evening - they all joined forces for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die at the end of the night- they rode one happy trail for those seeking a singular night of music.