What do you say about Willie Nelson? He's an icon, an American treasure, a songwriter with a beat-up guitar who transcended the world of country music he came from, and transformed it in the process.
Willie was a Texas boy who made the leap to songwriter-central, the country music capital, Nashville, in 1960. His song "Night Life" was a hit for Ray Price (and many others) and Willie joined Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys. More hits followed: Faron Young recorded "Hello Walls," Roy Orbison cut "Pretty Paper" and Patsy Cline went gold with "Crazy." But Willie wasn't cut out for Nashville. He moved back to Texas, settled in Austin and through the ’70s and into the ’80s basically established an alternative form of country music, something a journalist dubbed "outlaw country." He's been messing with the borders of country, pulling it in new directions ever since.
This morning I sent a note to a couple of guys in The Delta Nationals, a genre-hopping local band who will be among the opening acts when Willie plays at Dimmick Ranch Sunday. I wondered what they had planned, and learned from drummer Paul DeMark that they’ll play their usual mix of covers and originals. (They have two rehearsals scheduled between now and Sunday.) Paul also noted, "It is a great honor and privilege to open for Willie Nelson, one of the truly great American musical artists and one of the most amazing musical crossover artists of any era."
I'd say it's the crossover aspect that impresses me most. Not long ago Willie released Countryman, a collection of country songs done reggae-style and countrified reggae songs. This summer he came out with Two Men With The Blues, an album that pairs him with jazz icon Wynton Marsalis. It includes yet another version of "Night Life," this time with Willie singing as Wynton and company play slow jazzy blues with a New Orleans feel. It fits perfectly — his songs and his voice cross all borders and helped obliterate some of them. You understand that Willie does not write country music — he writes timeless American songs.
It's worth noting that he's also more than a musician. As one of the founders of Farm Aid, he's worked to save the family farm. He tours in a biodiesel bus, but that wasn't enough. He started Willie Nelson Biodiesel, a biodiesel production company. He's open about his use of pot and serves as co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. His icon status was cemented last year when Ben and Jerry's created "Willie Nelson’s Country Peach Cobbler Ice Cream." (Any money he gets from it goes to Farm Aid.)
So, you're wondering, what's the plan for Sunday? Gates open at Dimmick Ranch at 2 p.m. Music starts at 3 with The Human Revolution, an eco-minded “mystic country jam rock” band from Mendo led by a guy who calls himself Human. The Delta Nationals follow at 4:45, then at 6:30 it's Priscilla Ahn, a rising star from Hollywood's singer/songwriter scene who just released an album for Blue Note. Expect Willie Nelson and Family to take the stage at around 8:30 p.m. about an hour after the sun sinks west of the Mendocino County line. Don't worry, he'll keep you warm.
College is back in session and the students are getting a big welcome. Thursday evening HSU's Associated Students present HumWeek 2008, an outdoor show on the soccer fields near the gates (which will soon be torn up to make way for student housing). Multi-culti funksters Ozomatli headline the mini-fest, a multifaceted affair that includes punky dance band !!! (pronounced "chk, chk, chk") and my favorite neo-folky, Brett Dennen, with the dark comic troupe Upright Citizens Brigade doing tweener skits and serving as emcees.
More student stuff Friday afternoon: from 2-6 p.m. local rock station K-Slug has something they call a "Registration Celebration" in Wildberries' parking lot with a couple of Arcata's top bands: the alt. rockers Strix Vega and cow-punk bad boys The Rubberneckers, and DJ Itchie Fingazspinning this and that in between. The whole thing will be broadcast live on K-Slug if you're the virtual type.
The Hum is doing its "welcome back" part by offering a crash course on local bands via a Saturday walking tour of Arcata's clubs and cafés. (No, I'm not actually leading the tour, just providing directions.) As prelude, spend the morning on the Arcata Plaza where Blue Lake groove rock band Kulica provides the soundtrack for the Farmer's Market. Get something to eat; you have a busy night ahead. In the afternoon hit Muddy's Hot Cup, just across the footbridge from campus, where they're serving beer and bratwurst in the back patio with bluegrassy jams by Kindred Spirits and Highclass Hobo Society, all to benefit Green Wheels (bicycling proponents) and Friends of the Footbridge, whose exact purpose is unclear to me.
When evening comes, head out to Mosgo's in Westwood, where Strix Vega is playing with an old friend Chris Parreira. If you are under 21 your journey ends there — the rest of the night is in bars. Back in downtown Arcata you'll find the cool alt. folk-rock band Svelte Velvet (with a fiddling lead singer) sharing the bill at Humboldt Brews with The Rubberneckers. Around the corner at the Jambalaya, Moo-Got-2 lays down funk for the jammy crowd. Those looking for a DJ dance spot can head to Sidelines on the Plaza, where DJ Itchie Fingaz spins hip hop etc. along with video-mixes. (He's also there Thursdays.) Your final tour stop is The Alibi, where the music starts really late and tends to the heavy side. This Saturday it's another Humboldt Free Radio (pirate radio) benefit with local "instrumetal" band 33 & 1/3 and a new punk/metal combo, Tragic Mess.
Or, if you have a car and want to quit walking you could make your way to Eureka. The Pearl has DJ MusiqLement's dance mixes. If you're gay, you'll want to hit Auntie Mo's, where DJ Blancatron keeps the LGBT crowd moving. The dreadies and reggae fans will be across town at the Red Fox Tavern where they're celebrating the club's 2nd anniversary with an irie bash featuring Sister Carol aka "Mother Culture," (not a local) with Yellow Wall Dub Squad and special guest Itawe.
Rest up Sunday. And you can sleep until noon Monday, Labor Day, when the 23rd Annual I Block Party gets underway in front of Los Bagels. The annual benefit bash celebrates Arcata’s Sister City relationship with Camoapa, Nicaragua. They'll have food, beer, fun for kids and music by more local bands. The Berel Alexander Ensemble starts the music portion at noon with a jazz/rock/etc. mish-mash (they also play Friday at Mosgo's). At 1:35, it's jam rock by The Fickle Hill Billies (who also play Thursday at Pierson Park and Friday at Humboldt Brewery). Brazilian-style drum/dance troupe Quente SambAmore plays at 3:10; local reggae faves Ishi Dube and Massagana close the show with a set starting at 4:45.
Two late additions to the Big Pete's calendar: a show this Thursday with two Vancouver, B.C. bands, "voodoo punk" drum/bass duo Nu Sensae, plus Terror Bird, a post punk/new wave trio. Then on Saturday, it's intelligence, a thrash/pop four-piece on the way to play S.F.'s Bottom of the Hill. They're from Portland, supplying our weekly allotment of music from the City of Roses. Local opener still TBA. BTW, Pete's is another of Arcata's all ages spaces.
Humboldt Brews kicks off a new project Tuesday, Sept. 2, working with a crew called HumTunes. Once a month they'll do a live recording to be broadcast on Humboldt Access with clips posted on YouTube. The premiere session this week features two fine local semi-folky vocalists, Joanne Rand, backed by guitarist Robert Franklin, and Sari Baker backed by Mike Craghead. The future plan is to cut DVDs of the shows for sale. Bonus: no cover.
As noted above, Red Fox Tavern marks its 2nd anniversary this week. In addition to the Sister Carol show they have dancehall reggae Thursday, Aug. 28, with Norrisman and Rude Lion Sound. Friday they bring back the all-girl Led Zeppelin cover band Zepparella, who I'm told "kick ass." Then it's back-to-back hip hop shows starting with Tuesday's "Asian Hip Hop Summit" featuring Dumbfoundead, Lyraflip, Chosen 1, Youthinasia and DJ Dstrukt, plus Stir Fry, Confused Clarity, DJ Assassin, Republican Duck Hunters, Franco and an after midnight MC Battle.Wednesday's "Summer in September" brings in the rapper Knobody, with A-Plus from Hieroglyphics, plus locals Hiway, Dirty Rats, Nick Russo and the show's hosts, L.C.A.
Meanwhile Wednesday, back at HSU, Lucinda Williams and Buick 6returning to the Van Duzer stage. Lucinda has been writing and recording for 30 years, but like most people I didn't discover her music until she broke through in 1998 with the Grammy-winning album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,a mostly moody take on Americana that burns with passion as it dissects heartbreak. In a way, she's a latter-day manifestation of Willie's outlaw country, except now we call it alt. country.
Of course not all of her songs are tearjerkers. “I get tired of people looking at my songs and feeling that they’re all sad and dark,” says Lucinda. “There’s more to them than that. Some people might read Flannery O’Connor and see that as simply dark, and it is dark and disturbing, but there’s a philosophical aspect, even a comical aspect to it as well.”
So, while patiently awaiting the October release of Little Honey, Lucinda's latest for Lost Highway (also Willie's label), it might be time to read O'Connor's book, Wise Blood. And let's hope we hear some of those new songs next Wednesday.