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There are certain things you come to expect from every Willie Nelson performance: the opening strains of “Whiskey River,” the unfurling of the Texas flag, and medleys of the country icon’s myriad hits. After all, he’s been doing it that way since time immemorial. But at Friday’s Country Throwdown tour kickoff in Philadelphia—co-sponsored by Country Weekly —Willie seemed especially energized and invigorated, defying his 78 years with a clear, strong voice and his signature fleet-fingered guitar work.
As Throwdown tourmates Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser watched from the wings, the Red Headed Stranger cruised through classics such as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Crazy” and such latter-day fare as “Still Is Still Moving to Me” and “Beer for My Horses.” And while Willie gave his trusty Martin guitar “Trigger” a workout—if ever there were an instrument destined for the Smithsonian, it’s that one—he also accepted some familial help from son Lukas , who stepped to the fore for a blistering take on “Texas Flood,” displaying more of the bluesy playing he showed off earlier in the day during a set by his own band, Promise of the Real .
Still, despite Lukas’ fireworks, Mickey Raphael’s haunting harmonica fills and Willie’s sister Bobbie’s requisite piano solo on “Down Yonder,” Willie was clearly the master of ceremonies. The Philadelphia crowd—a mix of young and old, golf-shirted and shirtless, all co-existing—roared every time the legend took a solo or flashed his warm smile. By the show-closing spiritual “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Willie had everyone clapping along, including Jamey, who ambled onstage to sing harmony with one of his chief inspirations.
That camaraderie, both onstage and in the audience, was the underlying theme of the day. Prior to the show, fans tailgated, barbecued and played horseshoes in the grassy parking lot. Once inside, they milled about the carnival-like concourse, attending autograph signings by Lee Brice and Randy Houser, visiting booths for Farm Aid and other charities, and listening to artists such as Craig Campbell and Brantley Gilbert on the Second Stage. They were even able to experience the power of a Harley-Davidson by firing up the engine of a stationary bike, and also get an up-close look at Randy’s new wheels.
The “In God’s Time” singer brought his new Harley on tour with him—and also a red-lining energy to the festival during his main-stage set that afternoon. Tearing through hits such as “Boots On” and “Whistlin' Dixie,” as well as a spirited cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” Randy gamely paid tribute to his Southern-rock influences. But it was his nuanced vocal performance in the slow and swampy “Somewhere South of Memphis” that proved to be the highlight of his set.
Likewise, Jamey Johnson brought his own fierce energy to the Throwdown. Backed by his excellent band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, Jamey constructed a set fleshed out by his hits, hits he’s written for others and the hits of his heroes. “In Color,” the George Strait No. 1 “Give It Away,” and Vern Gosdin’s “Set ’Em Up Joe” were all given their due. As was Merle Haggard’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” for which Jamey enlisted the help of Bluebird Cafe Stage singer Erin Enderlin, whose debut album Jamey is producing.
After Memorial Day weekend stops in New Hampshire, Vermont and Pennsylvania, the tour rolls into Nashville on Friday (6/3) .
For ticket information and upcoming dates, go to CountryThrowdown.com .