Willie Nelson deconstructs and reconstructs the hits in Merriweather set

Willie Nelson turned 82 in April, and when he came to the Merriweather Post Pavilion Wednesday night, the skin hung loosely from his thin arms. Even so, he was younger than his drummer, 83-year-old Paul English, and his pianist, 84-year-old sister Bobbie Nelson, who needed assistance to get to the piano bench. In recent years, the band had some youth in the presence of Willie's sons, Lukas and Micah, but this summer they’re off playing with Neil Young.

Willie no longer has the vocal power and tone he enjoyed in the last century, but he still has the best phrasing of any living American singer and as radical imagination as one will find in any musician. All night long in Howard County, he would play his familiar hits and totally deconstruct and reconstruct them. He would sing just enough of the chorus that the audience felt like it was hearing the radio version when actually they were hearing wild, improvised jazz-guitar fills and solos.

You could tell they were spontaneous, because sometimes he painted himself into a corner, but far more often he carved a new door in the song's back wall and stepped through. This was most obvious on 'Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground' and 'Funny How Time Slips Away.' Yet the core of the song was always accessible; he even got the crowd singing along to 'Always on My Mind' and Hank Williams' 'Move It on Over.'

The Old Crow Medicine Show also got the crowd singing along to 'Wagon Wheel' near the end of their 70-minute, opening set. 'Wagon Wheel' is one of the few genuine folk songs to emerge from the 21st century—a tune that people not only download but sing on porches and around campfires. It has never sounded better than it did Wednesday when OCMS lead singer Ketch Secor, who adapted the song from a Bob Dylan leftover, delivered the irresistible chorus perfectly.

Wearing a blue and purple cowboy shirt, the skinny Secor stomped out the opening couplet, "Rock me, Mama, like a wagon wheel, rock me, Mama, any way you feel," over the boisterous rhythms of his own fiddle, guest Mickey Raphael's harmonica, and OCMS's banjo, guitjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and pedal steel. Then he let out the third line, "Hey, Mama, rock me," in an exhalation of post-coital bliss, the contrast that makes the whole song. It was not only hillbilly rock; it was also hillbilly roll.

Some people have criticized OCMS ever since they emerged from the neo-string-band pack in 2004 on the strength of their songwriting and left the cloistered world of DIY purity behind—as if adding craft to energy were some kind of crime. But that craft didn't dilute the band's expansive energy Wednesday night; the songwriting provided an invaluable focus, especially on numbers such as the hilarious irreverence of 'Bushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer' and the homesick yearning of 'Bootlegger's Boy.' OCMS may well be the best-ever country group without the lead singer's name in the band name.

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