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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Nelson a Solid Opening for Calamigos

August 29, 1995|STEVE APPLEFORD

Willie Nelson was an inspired bit of casting Sunday for the debut of a new concert venue in the hills of Malibu. His usual warmth, and his tales of romance, tough times and lessons learned fit right in at Calamigos Ranch, a scene that was more country picnic than concert hall.

Along with Nelson's two-hour performance, what fans got for their 40 bucks was as much barbecue as they could eat, a bonfire, a Dixieland band, a carousel, games and cowboys lassoing the little kids. The longest line was for beer, of course, but it was ultimately Nelson who was the day's most worthwhile attraction. (The Gipsy Kings will appear at the venue Sept. 7.)

Nelson today finds himself a relic of a time when country music meant honest emotion and music of true originality. Standing on the outdoor stage in his jeans and sneakers, the Texan was a welcome antidote to the parade of faceless male crooners coming out of Nashville lately.

On stage, Nelson and his six-member band were free from the sleepy schmaltz of "Healing Hands of Time," his overproduced new collection of standards (including a few of his own). His live interpretations are more rough-hewn and carry the weight of experience, as with his extended version of "Amazing Grace," where Nelson called on the crowd to sing along.

Though not often recognized as a guitar hero, Nelson proved himself to be his band's best asset. During several lengthy instrumental passages, Nelson casually picked and chopped out a variety of expressive sounds from his old, beat-up acoustic guitar, covered with the signatures of the famous and infamous he's known.

It was all done with a wink and a smile to the crowd, many of whom waved to Nelson as they walked past the stage. When one woman ran up to bare her breasts, Nelson tipped his hat to the lady, as any true gentleman would.

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