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Willie Nelson

Almost 6 years back, this lovably grizzled American troubadour held court at this very same venue, with his seasoned band of roadhogs – some of whom have been by his side close to 40 years.

From where I sat, it was an entertaining – if lackluster – show from a man most would easily forgive for coasting a bit every once in a while. However, others that night found the performance outstanding, and I know more than a few who recall it as one of the lamest gigs they’ve ever payed good money for.

That’s the thing about Willie. As an artist (and seemingly as a man), he’s so transparent, it’s not uncommon for crowds to see right through him.

What remains, then? Perhaps little, save for one’s own particular vision of whatever he is, was, or should be.

The 71-year-old’s life has become such an established part of popular lore it’s easy for even those of us who admire his accomplishments to fall into the trap of reducing him to headlines and bullet points on a long, long résumé: Joined his first band (a polka group) at age 10; moved to Nashville in 1960 – split in 1970; became a major star with his genre-busting concept LP Red Headed Stranger, and its smash hit “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”; racked up noteworthy acting roles in such diverse fare as Honeysuckle Rose, Songwriter, Wag The Dog, and – most recently – TV’s King Of The Hill and Monk; and co-founded the annual Farm Aid concerts, which to date have raised more than $24 million for struggling family farmers in the USA.

Along the way, he found time to co-headline an outdoor tour with Bob Dylan, (infamously) smoke pot on the back lawn of the White House, and get messed up in a failed tax shelter (he wound up owing the IRS almost $32 million).

The guy is so beloved, that when the Feds auctioned off his home and belongings to pay the bill, fans and friends bought most of the stuff and then turned around and gave it all back to him.

Why beloved? Well, he’s written far more than his share of timeless country standards (like “Crazy,” “On The Road Again,” “Always On My Mind,” “Whiskey River,” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”), and he blazed a trail that led underappreciated, iconoclastic tunesmiths straight from Nashville to the more open-minded environs of Austin, Tx. (the ‘70s Outlaw Country movement which turned Music City on its collective ear).

In the past few years, he’s weathered a few more storms, such as surgery on both hands for carpal tunnel syndrome (the inevitable outcome of hundreds of live dates each year for almost half a century), and a turkey of a CD produced by Matchbox Twenty associate Matt Serletic (The Great Divide).

But he’s also rebounded with a great new record (It Always Will Be) that finds him duetting with Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones on a batch of songs that revisit the delivery and arrangements that have served him the best.

If you expect a polished act that’s long on hits and short on surprises or gaffes, you’ll likely be disappointed with this show. Willie doesn’t play that game.

But if you go expecting the unexpected – like an off the cuff rendition of some old cover song that floats his boat, or a meandering medley of many of his signature hits – you’ll have a wonderful time.

After all, Willie’s nothing more or less than what you make of him. Sat., 8 pm, The Johnny Mercer Theatre. Tickets available at the box office, or by phone at 651-6556.

The Lonesome Whistle Band

This River Street venue regularly books a variety of roots-music acts, from rock to funk to blues. However, there’s a common denominator running through almost all their offerings: noodling.

Whether it’s the psychedelic overtones of innumerable Grateful Dead offspring, or the more avant-garde explorations of hard-to-pigeonhole groups from the Vassar Clements school of “hillbilly jazz,” Cagney’s is the place in town to see people stretch their solos out and wail.

That’s why the fact they’re presenting this traditional bluegrass group from Guyton is so refreshing and unexpected. Not that these folks can’t improv solos with the best of them (truth is, they flat out tear it up), but their reverent take on the Bill Monroe trip is – like all traditional exponents of the genre – compact, precise, and essentially noodle-free.

Assumedly, the fact that local banjo ace Jimmy Wolling (known for his work with the Double Diamond Band and – more recently – his own jamgrass group) is back in their ranks after an extended absence has a lot to do with their appearance – and that’s a good thing.

It never hurts to give folks used to Cherry Coke a hard gulp of the straight stuff. That’s what bassist Rebecca and guitarist Russell Rose, fiddler Scott Holton, and Wolling lay down – serious, respectful old-school bluegrass. Their 2000 CD God’s Not Dead features 14 tracks of country gospel tunes (like “Hallelujah, I’m Ready” and the title track).

Will their high, lonesome vocal harmonies and distinctly un-rock look and sound jibe with the room’s neon beer lights and patchouli haze? Who knows? But since at least half the bands that regularly play Cagney’s would have no raison d’etre without the existence of folks like The Lonesome Whistle Band, it’d be a real shame if the group didn’t go over like gangbusters. Fri., JJ Cagney’s.

Tsunami Relief Comedy Show

In the tradition of Comic Relief’s nationwide benefits for the homeless, a local promoter has teamed with 7 standup comedians from across the country to raise money for the American Red Cross’ dedicated international relief efforts related to this awful natural disaster.

The Trade & Convention Center has donated their Grand Ballroom as the venue, and the artists are paying their own travel costs and waiving their fees.

In other words, I have been assured that 100% of all proceeds will be donated “in a timely manner” directly to victim relief efforts and will not be used for corporate overhead. Based on that information – and the fact that we’ve not had a dedicated standup venue in years – this is a wonderful way to spend an evening.

The show offers “broadcast network-friendly content” (meaning no blue humor) from Mark Colella, Big Baby, Michael Gaskin, Daniel Nainan, Kathy Westerfield, Al Ernst and Second City’s Cynthia Levin.

If those names don’t ring any bells, don’t forget there was a time when Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Blueberryhead were relative unknowns as well.

Advance tickets are $20 at Oglethorpe Mall’s Customer Service and the Old Town Trolley HQ (214 West Boundary St.), or $25 at the door. Thurs., 7:30 pm, Savannah Trade & Convention Center.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Well, speaking of traditional bluegrass – it doesn’t get much better than this.

Known the world over for their impeccable musicianship and awe-inspiring vocal blends, the latest version of this bedrock outfit tours incessantly. That shows in the sextet’s jaw-dropping harmonies, and rock-solid meter.

Their latest release, Thank God, is a fabulous collection of Doyle’s favorite country gospel ballads and hymns from the ‘40s through the ‘60s, and it makes a wonderful primer for those who’ve never had the pleasure of being washed in this sort of glorious, sanctified music.

In his youth, Lawson backed the great Jimmy Martin, and a who’s who of modern-day bluegrass greats (including Ricky Skaggs) studied at his feet as well.

Lately, shows at this cozy, 100-seat homegrown listening room have been selling out well in advance. So, if you’d like to catch one of the true legends up close and personal, charge a ticket today. Thurs., Feb. 10th, 7:30 pm, Randy Wood’s Concert Hall (Bloomingdale). For advance tickets ($30 plus tax), call 748-1930.