Willie Nelson and Keith Urban Wrap Inaugural U.S. iTunes Music Festival at SXSW with Classics
Ebet Roberts

A sampler plate of country music closed out the inaugural U.S. iTunes Music Festival on Saturday (March 15) at South By Southwest, giving the genre a wide and varied berth after four previous days of rock, pop and rap.

The exuberant crowd at the ACL Live at Moody Theater was up for all of it, however, from the pop leaning of powerhouse newcomer Mickey Guyton to the rocking edge of headliner Keith Urban and the Americana sprawl of Willie Nelson – who was afforded an appropriate home town hero’s welcome in a venue that has a statue of him in at its entrance and is on an Austin street named after him.

Nelson and his eight-piece band did nothing more or less than what they always do, opening the 45-minute, 15-song set with the traditional “Whiskey River” and then rolling through a selection of favorites either written or interpreted by Nelson during his many decades making music. He remains adept at subtly recasting his catalog, and songs such as “Beer For My Horses,” with its call-and-response choruses, and the medley of “Funny How Time Just Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” were treated with slightly different textures and cadences, but always with their familiar melodies intact.

Nelson pulled out other totems such as “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again,” while he let sister and pianist Bobbie Nelson lead the group through “Down Yonder” and son Lukas Nelson front a rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” juiced up with solos by all three guitarists and harmonica player Mickey Raphael. The night’s surprise was “a new gospel song” called “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me when I’m Dead” – which Nelson and company followed with the more reverent “I Saw the Light.”

Urban, meanwhile, closed the evening with his high-octatne, arena-sized bombast, mixing virtuoistic guitar work and earthy charm across a catalog-spanning 17-song, 90-minute set. A muscular instrumental intro led into equally uptempo opening of “Long Hot Summer” and “Sweet Thing,” the latter featuring an extended Urban solo. “Stupid Boy” was an early showstopper, while quieter tracks such as “Come Back to Me” and “Without You” – whose video images of Urban shirtless and on his wedding day with actress Nicole Kidman drew big cheers – slipped in amidst torqued-up versions of “Even the stars Fall For You,” “Kiss a Girl,” “Good Thing,” “Put You in a Song” and a lusty “Somebody  Like You.”

During “You Gonna Fly” Urban came off the stage to perform it and part of “Better Life” from the middle of the Moody Theater’s floor, while he finished the night spending most of “You Look Good in My Shirt” in the venue’s mezzanine, making the already intimate setting a bit a more up-close-and-personal.

All of the iTunes Festival performances were streamed live and will reside in the iTunes store as on-demand features.