Sometimes it’s easy to forget, as we’ve become comfortable with Willie Nelson, just what a game-changer he has been. When it came to casino showroom entertainment back in 1978, Willie Nelson broke all the rules. Nobody had seen anything like him in an atmosphere defined by the traditional crooners in tuxes – Tony Bennett, Franks Sinatra, Eddie Fisher. Blue jeans rarely made an appearance, least of all on the headliner.
Yet, here came Willie, booked into the South Shore Room at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, one of the most elegant showrooms in the state, brought in by his agent, the legendary Jerry Weintraub (who died just a few weeks ago). He wore blue jeans and that bandana, which has since become inevitably associated with him. His band was a motley assortment.
Audiences had only recently become accustomed to any country music in that room at all. Eddie Arnold broke that mold. But Nelson was no tuxedoed Eddy Arnold, no Mel Tillis in bright blue and glitter. There were many in the audience who walked out. Who did this man think he was? But as quickly as they walked, someone filled their seats, someone waiting in the cancellation line who knew what he didn’t want to miss.
Nelson did back then what he has done since. He started with “Whiskey River” after saying “Good evening” and ended 90 minutes later with a “Good night.” Nary a minute of banter for the entire show. It was not necessary. Still isn’t. The man’s wit is still in his arrangements, phrasing and mastery of lyrics, and there is no longer any need to defend him.
Friday’s set list at Thunder Valley is completely unpredictable. Nelson draws from a deep well of hits, dating back to his early days as a sessions player in Nashville.
And there’s a bonus this show: Nelson will be joined by Alison Krauss and Union Station and their excellent bluegrass and country takes. For a simple introduction to this Krauss’ talent, listen to “Raising Sand,” her 2007 six-Grammy-Awards-winning album with Robert Plant. Union Station includes another Grammy winner – Dobro master Jerry Douglas, whose new band the Earls of Leicester recently headlined the Lake Tahoe Bluegrass Festival. (7 p.m.; $49.75-$189.75; thundervalleyresort.com)
From the beginning Keb’ Mo’ has laughed at references to him as a “Delta Blues” performer. Sure, he (Kevin Moore) was heavily influenced by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but he’s from Los Angeles and quickly developed his own style, mixing genres at will. He plays Cache Creek on Saturday. (8 p.m.; $49-$69; cachecreek.com)
Two biggies this week include Train, touring to promote their latest album, “Bulletproof Picasso,” appearing at Harveys Lake Tahoe Outdoor Amphitheater, joined by The Fray and Matt Nathanson, on Tuesday (8 p.m.; $49.50-$99.50; Ticketmaster); and Kenny Chesney, whose “The Big Revival Tour” is No. 4 in the country, on Wednesday (8 p.m.; $79.50-$149.50; Ticketmaster).