At 89 (!), Willie Nelson is still a musical marvel at Palomino Festival

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Pasadena, CA - July 09: Willie Nelson performs during the Palomino festival at Rose Bowl Stadium on Saturday, July 9, 2022 in Pasadena, CA. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Willie Nelson performs at the Palomino Festival at Brookside at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

How many times you figure Willie Nelson has sung “On the Road Again” in the four decades since it came out?

A thousand? Two thousand? Five?

Whatever the answer, the 89-year-old American musical legend still plays his signature song in a way that can surprise you — and surprise whoever’s playing it with him, as was the case Saturday night in Pasadena.

Dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt, his hair in two long braids beneath a black cowboy hat, Nelson shuffled onstage halfway through Kacey Musgraves’ headlining performance at Palomino, a new music festival that brought the two of them along with Jason Isbell, Orville Peck, Zach Bryan, Old Crow Medicine Show and about a dozen more left-of-center country acts to the leafy grounds surrounding the Rose Bowl.

Nelson had finished his own set earlier without doing “On the Road Again,” so it was pretty clear what he planned to play with Musgraves, who introduced her fellow Texan as her “other grandpa” after noting that her “actual grandpa” was in the audience.

Yet for all the warning Musgraves and her band had, they still spent the next few deeply delightful minutes scrambling to keep up with Nelson’s wild and idiosyncratic phrasing as he sang about making music with his friends and plucked out a vinegary solo on the famously battered acoustic guitar he calls Trigger.

When the song was over, Nelson hitched up his jeans, hugged Musgraves, then hoisted Trigger in the air with a kindly smile as if to say to everyone onstage: “Good try, y'all.”

Presented by Goldenvoice, which also puts on Coachella and its country-music cousin Stagecoach, Palomino was a much smaller, cozier affair than those annual desert mega-festivals — cozier, indeed, than the promoter was likely hoping for, given that tickets were still available Saturday. (Goldenvoice recently called off two other festivals reportedly because of low ticket sales, raising concerns of a slowdown in the booming post-COVID-19 pandemic concert industry.)

Apart from a woeful shortage of booze unimaginable at Stagecoach, though, Palomino — which drew maybe 15,000 fans — made the most of its shaggy low-key vibe. Isbell and Bryan played sturdy, no-fuss roots rock; Peck, who’s never seen without a fringed Lone Ranger-style face mask, dialed down some of his usual stagecraft to emphasize the yearning melodies he’s taken from his love of Roy Orbison.

A female singer performs onstage with an acoustic guitar.
Kacey Musgraves performs at the Palomino Festival. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

For Musgraves, Saturday’s performance followed a splashy arena tour behind last year’s “Star-Crossed,” which not only charted her recent divorce but also marked her self-conscious turn toward slickly produced pop after years of flirting with it.

“We’re gonna have fun, even though I made a f— depressing album,” she told the crowd as she opened her set at Palomino, and though the songs nodded to Fleetwood Mac and the Bee Gees, they felt much looser than they did a few months ago at Arena; Musgraves seemed less tortured about her relationship with the country-music establishment, which allowed some air into tunes like “Justified” and “Breadwinner,” the latter of which got an extended disco outro.

After she brought Nelson onstage, Musgraves sang Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” — a bit of “Kaceyoke,” as she put it — and it was easy to sense the inspiration she’s found not just in Parton’s flair for show business but also in her breezy self-determination.

Nelson, of course, is a model too in that regard: Here, he introduced the tender and philosophical “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die” as a cut from “my 95th album, which came out on my 89th birthday.”

Backed by the durable road band he calls the Family — including his sons Lukas and Micah, though minus his sister and longtime pianist, Bobbie, who died in March at age 91 — Nelson moved casually through his expansive catalog of songs he wrote and songs he popularized as one of America's greatest cultural synthesizers: “Always on My Mind,” “Whiskey River,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” (He even did a Pearl Jam tune, “Just Breathe.”)

As in “On the Road Again,” Nelson’s singing was a marvel of musicianly instinct, with unexpected blue notes and little swerves of tempo that thoroughly blurred the lines among country, jazz and soul music; his guitar playing was even more of a thrill as he rattled up and down Trigger’s neck, using the instrument as much for percussion as for harmony.

Lukas sang lead for a blistering take on “Texas Flood,” while Micah took over for “If I Die When I’m High I’ll Be Halfway to Heaven,” a title he said his dad came up with during a game of dominoes. His point was that the best thing about Nelson’s genius might be its no-big-deal quality; the proof was the offhand beauty of the song.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.