Playing off of Willie Nelson's tribute to his own hero Lefty Frizell, Matthew Houck, AKA Phosphorescent, reaches deep into the Nelson archive for a homage of his own, the excellent To Willie. Though Nelson himself is in no danger of being forgotten (has a musician ever added so much to American lore?), certain of his songs are, having been inadvertently buried under the man's 70-year-old mountain of releases, which grows by at least five albums each year. The songs Houck wrestles with are Nelson's plainspoken, bottomed-out country numbers like "Reasons to Quit" (about addiction), "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way" (about infidelity), and "Too Sick to Pray" (spiritual exhaustion). Houck is successful in honoring Nelson because what To Willie does is unearth Nelson's dustier, bleaker side. The band plays as if the songs are swimming through a hangoverwoozy, cracked, and slowly swingin'. Houck also deserves credit for pulling off Nelson's slippery sense of musical timing, in which solos are delivered two paces behind the rhythm section and verses take wide leaps ahead of the melodies. It's not all stark, though. When Houck delves into upbeat honky-tonkers "Pick Up the Tempo" and "I Gotta Get Drunk", the effect is like listening to a sun-baked afternoon jam, with the band grinning and nodding wearily through a thick fog of marijuana smoke.
Tue., March 10, 8 p.m., 2009