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The many moods of country icon Willie Nelson

It's anybody's guess what kind of performance Willie Nelson will give during his extended stay in the Bay Area this week. In recent years, Nelson has embraced the same sort of crazily ornate arrangements that he rejected decades ago, back when he ditched Nashville in favor of Austin and almost single-handedly created Texas' vibrant altcountry scene. Early last year, the grizzled road warrior steered his lavishly produced Great Divide album into the middle rungs of the Billboard charts, enjoying more commercial success than he'd seen in ages. On the recent Stars & Guitars live CD, Nelson shared the stage with a swath of guest performers, singing rings around lunk-headed Top 10 himbo Toby Keith and hitting sublime heights in a duet with neo-diva Norah Jones.

For a glimpse at Nelson's quieter, more private side, check out Crazy: The Demo Sessions, a recently unearthed trove of songs that he cut for a tiny Music Row publishing house back in the early '60s, when he was struggling to establish himself as a performer. These stark, remarkable recordings are thematically dark, touching on human failure, drunken mourning, and homicidal urges. They also reveal Nelson as a stylist years ahead of his time, already toying with the off-kilter, jazzy phrasings that so confounded major-label execs. Any or all of these stylistic personae could be on the prowl at the Fillmore this week, as Willie and his pals pick their way through countless country, blues, jazz, and pop standards.

 
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