It was 11:00pm on the dot when Willie walked off the stage at Red Rocks as he had countless times before. This time he wrapped the show with a little help from his friends, giving the second stage and Bluebird Cafe artists a chance to experience something only a select few have ever experienced…looking out at rows and rows of cheering fans framed by the famous monoliths while breathing in the pure Colorado air on a perfect night at the best place in the country to play music. ‘When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away’ At this point in the night, you could almost believe it.
The days of Willie Nelson playing 3+ hour sets are long behind him, but with his Country Throwdown tour he more than makes up for what might seem lacking in his well-deserved headlining slot. Providing country music fans with no less than 7 hours of music for the price of a single concert ticket is very attractive in today’s economy, even if most couldn’t get off work early enough to take full advantage of all that was on offer. But even those who arrived by 6:00pm were able to catch Lee Brice, Randy Houser, Jamey Johnson, interludes by the lesser known artists, as well as an hour long performance by the man himself. Not too bad for a Tuesday night.
We staked out some room at the main stage (10th row center) around 5:00pm and listened to music on the smaller stage from a distance, holding down our spot for the main event.
‘For those about to rock!’ 30-year old rising country star Lee Brice had the honor of warming up the main stage. Introduced by the sounds of AC/DC, the young recording artist held his own in the big leagues. ‘I’ve been to Colorado before and I love it, but I’ve never been here before and I really love it’ Brice opened his set with Picture of Me off last year’s debut album, Love Like Crazy, before rockin’ his way through a few other tracks from that album, including the chart/record-breaking title track. ‘a song that changed my life last year’. A new song, Beer, was pretty corny and generic but did a great job getting butts off seats and beverages in the air. Although the real party-starter came a little later in the form of a sing-along rendition of Hank Williams, Jr.’s Family Tradition with Craig Campbell joining the band onstage. Coming from someone who was not familiar with Brice’s material, I was completely entertained for his full 30 min. performance. A great way to start the night!
Randy Houser came out strong with his chart-topping Boots On, but I just couldn’t get over the top-hat wearing, Slash wannabe dude to his left. I wanted to get over his ridiculous outfit, but it haunted me throughout the uneven set. It seems Randy‘s kinda of country, like his bandmates choice of clothes, is a little bit funky and that goes against what I believe artists like Willie Nelson and Jamey Johnson stand for. Luckily the funk quickly blew away in the breeze and we were treated to Lowdown and Lonesome from last year’s They Call Me Cadillac, one of the more enjoyable songs of the set. Somewhere South of Memphis continued down those country roads with stories of blues, blood and Mississippi mud, but those roads led us to fields of marijuana and jam sessions that could only be appreciated by those lost in the smokey haze. Not lost for long, Randy and the boys did come back to end it strong with Whistlin’ Dixie, providing the perfect explanation for the identity crisis we just witnessed ‘I’m a son of the son of the South, Daddy redneck, Momma half hippie‘. Randy might be mama’s boy, but he is also daddy’s son and by the end of the set there was no doubt why Willie chose this band to share his stage, even if the crowd wasn’t 100% sold.
Jamey Johnson doesn’t wear funny outfits, you won’t catch him sporting a backwards trucker cap and he isn’t going to run around the stage trying to amp up the audience. Jamey Johnson is going to walk up to the microphone like a country-western Buddha and he is going to school you on hard realities of this here life. The long-haired, bearded man up there confessing his sins might be turning 36 next month, but he might as well be turning 96. This dude has lived…and he has lived to talk about it. Introduced by the sounds of prison gates opening, Johnson was released onto the stage at Red Rocks at sundown to plead his case for parole. ‘this prison is much colder than that one that I was locked up in just yesterday‘ Mr. Johnson has come a long way since trading his wife ‘for cocaine and a whore‘, but instead of showcasing all the amazing songs from his epic The Guitar Song, he chose to give tribute to those who came before. Johnny Paycheck, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and many others. In spirit and in song Jamey brought them to life on Tuesday night. The songs from his newest album that did make the cut were Poor Man’s Blues, Set ‘Em Up Joe (also a cover) and The Guitar Song. Not exactly standout tracks, but not one left anything lacking in the hands of this seasoned professional. There arn’t many artists that can get away with standing at the mic in a stoic stance for over an hour. There are ever fewer that can get away with a 7-minute cover of Bob Seeger‘s Turn The Page after only 4 original songs. But Jamey Johnson is one of the few. This was not a lively set, there would be no fireworks after and the rearranged In Color might have confused the thousands of voices trying to sing-along, but the man with the guitar and the voice did not disappoint. Would I have liked to have heard Macon? Can’t Cash My Checks? Cover Your Eyes? Hell yeah, I would’ve. Did I sing along with everyone else when he decided to end with Give It Away, the song he co-wrote for George Straight? Hell yeah, I did. Jamey Johnson could have used his position on this tour to push his new album, as most artists in his position would have. He decided to give respect to his elders instead. Can’t judge a man for that and can’t say it wasn’t a great performance. For my money, it was the best of the night.
What can I say about Willie at Red Rocks that hasn’t already been said (literally) hundreds of times before? The man is pushing 80 years young and he has been playing here longer than most of us have been alive. Can he perform like he did in the 70’s and 80’s? No, he can’t. Is this still a show worth seeing? Yes, it is. Over the past few years Willie has cut down his setlist to include those songs he is still comfortable performing and while that might take away from the dynamic aspect of the Willie Nelson experience, it’s still a fun event. Think of it as a tradition. In reality, the crowd sings louder than Willie himself on classics like Whiskey River, On The Road Again and I Gotta Get Drunk and that’s what makes it an interactive event. Then the night gets quiet, you hold on tight to the one you love, swaying back and forth while that voice you recognize as well as your own grandfather’s tells you of angels that fly too close to the ground….reminding you that you will always be on someone’s mind. It’s that voice, that bandanna, those braids and that red, white and blue guitar strap that reminds you that everything is not lost. There is still a part of the good ‘ol days that hasn’t gone into hiding. Willie Nelson might not be the performer he was in his prime, but he’s still got a sense of humour. ‘and when I die, put it on my stone, god said sucker, get your bad ass home…you ain’t Superman‘ Funny as that is, there will come a time when Willie Nelson will perform at Red Rocks no more and I’ll count myself as one of the lucky ones who hiked up those stairs every year to see those same songs performed, to hear the same jokes told and for one hour of the year, to believe in the good ol’ days.
Willie & Friends
Jamey Johnson: (click on links for some shaky video)
High Cost of Living
Poor Man Blues
11 Months and 29 Days (Johnny Paycheck cover)
Raining in My Heart (Buddy Holly cover)
Set ‘Em Up Joe (Vern Gosdin cover)
Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way (Waylon Jennings cover)
That Lonesome Song
The Guitar Song
Mama Tired (Merle Haggard cover w/Austin Lucas)
Turn The Page (Bob Seger cover)
Give It Away (George Strait cover, though Johnson co-wrote it)
Still Is Still Moving To Me
Beer For My Horses (Toby Keith cover)
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings cover)
Me & Paul
Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always On My Mind
I Ain’t Superman
You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore
Bloody Mary Morning
I Gotta Get Drunk
I’ll Fly Away (with everyone)