Willie Nelson, 89, is a musical marvel at the Palomino Festival

How many times do you think Willie Nelson sang “On the Road Again” in the four decades since its release?

A thousand? Two thousand? Five?

Whatever the answer, the 89-year-old American musical legend still plays his signature song in a way that may surprise you — and surprise whoever plays it with him, as it did on Saturday night in Pasadena.

Dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, his hair in two long braids under a black cowboy hat, Nelson moved onstage midway through the headlining performance of Kacey Musgraves at Palomino, a new music festival that brought them together with Jason Isbell, Orville Peck, Zach Bryan, Old Crow Medicine Show and about a dozen other center-left country artists on the leafy grounds surrounding the Rose Bowl.

Nelson had finished his own set earlier without doing ‘On the Road Again’, so it was pretty clear what he planned to perform with Musgraves, who introduced his fellow Texan as his ‘other grandfather’ after noting that his “real grandfather” was in the audience.

Yet despite all the warnings from Musgraves and his band, they still spent the next deeply delightful minutes scrambling to keep up with Nelson’s wild and idiosyncratic phrasing as he sang along to the music with his friends and pulled off a solo. vinegared on the famous acoustic. guitar he calls Trigger.

When the song ended, Nelson rolled up his jeans, hugged Musgraves, then hoisted Trigger into the air with a benevolent smile as if to say to everyone on stage, “Good try, y’all.”

Brought to you by Goldenvoice, which also features Coachella and its country music cousin Stagecoach, Palomino was a much smaller, cozier affair than those annual desert mega-festivals — cozier, indeed, than the promoter probably hoped, given that tickets were still available on Saturday. (Goldenvoice recently canceled two other festivals apparently due to low ticket sales, raising fears of a slowdown in the booming concert industry following the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Aside from an unimaginable booze shortage at Stagecoach, Palomino — which drew perhaps 15,000 fans — made the most of its low-key, shaggy vibe. Isbell and Bryan played solid, no-fuss roots rock; Peck, who has never been seen without a Lone Ranger-style fringed face mask, dialed in some of his usual stage gestures to underline the fiery melodies he drew from his love for Roy Orbison.

Kacey Musgraves performs at the Palomino Festival.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

For Musgraves, Saturday’s performance followed a splashy arena tour behind last year’s “Star-Crossed,” which not only charted her recent divorce, but also marked her conscious shift to well-produced pop after years of flirting with her.

“We’re gonna have fun, even though I made a depressing album,” she told the crowd as she opened her set to Palomino, and though the songs nodded to Fleetwood Mac and the Bees. Gees, they felt a lot looser than they were. a few months ago at Crypto.com Arena; Musgraves seemed less tortured by her relationship with the country music establishment, which left some air in tunes like “Justified” and “Breadwinner,” the latter of which got an extended disco release.

After bringing Nelson onstage, Musgraves sang Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” — a bit of “Kaceyoke,” as she put it — and it was easy to feel the inspiration she found not only in Parton’s flair for show business but also in her. mild self-determination.

Nelson, of course, is also a role model in this respect: here he presented the tender and philosophical “I’ll love you until the day I die” as a cut from “my 95th album, which came out the day of my 89th birthday.”

Supported by the enduring road band he calls family – including his sons Lukas and Micah, but without his sister and longtime pianist Bobbie, who died in March at the age of 91 – Nelson has casually traveled his extensive catalog of songs he wrote and songs he popularized as one of America’s greatest cultural synthesizers: “Always on My Mind”, “Whiskey River”, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”. (He even did a Pearl Jam track, “Just Breathe.”)

As in “On the Road Again,” Nelson’s singing was a marvel of musical instinct, with unexpected blue notes and small tempo deviations that completely blurred the lines between country, jazz, and soul music; his guitar playing was even more exciting as he shook Trigger’s neck, using the instrument for both percussion and harmony.

Lukas sang lead for a searing version of “Texas Flood,” while Micah took over for “If I Die When I’m High I’ll Be Halfway to Heaven,” a track he said that his father had invented during a game of dominoes. . His argument was that perhaps the best thing about Nelson’s genius was his unimportant quality; the proof was the casual beauty of the song.

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