Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson's show at the Patriot Center on Wednesday night contained few surprises. The country singer sported his trademark long silver-haired braids and spent half of the evening in a cowboy hat and half with his signature bandanna tied around his head. A giant Texas flag unfurled at the back of the stage during his opening song, "Whiskey River," a tune he reprised 90 minutes later.

Nor was Nelson's choice of songs unexpected. In addition to his own well-known tunes ("Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "Beer for My Horses"), Nelson played a few numbers written by his Highwaymen band mates: Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" and Waylon Jennings's "Good Hearted Woman." In fact, the biggest surprise of his set was that he didn't play anything from his latest album, the reggae collection "Countryman."

Still, Nelson's performance was fairly engaging. His guitar solo on "Always on My Mind" delivered the emotions that his voice's tinny timbre didn't, and his five-piece backing band's instrumentation on "All of Me" was so beautifully unstructured, it sounded improvised. Nelson seemed almost afraid of the mike, often singing so far from it that his voice blended into his band's accompaniment. He rarely paused to speak, jumping from one tune to the next with little room for audience applause. But despite this apparent shyness, pieces such as "Me and Paul," a song about road adventures with his longtime drummer, exposed Nelson's fun-loving personality.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

Ben Folds and the BSO

The average age of the audience at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert dropped a few decades Thursday night at Strathmore. The difference was immediately apparent -- just the dimming of the house lights at the start of the show garnered applause. These enthusiastic Generation X- and Yers were enticed by singer-songwriter Ben Folds, whose smart, often funny lyrics and compelling piano style -- think Elton John before the glitz set in -- drew a capacity crowd to the BSO's Pops Rocks program.

Wearing T-shirt, jeans and thick-rimmed glasses, the slight, 39-year-old Folds displayed a dynamic keyboard style that included rapid-fire stabs, pounding with his forearm and even using the seat of the piano stool on the keys. Folds's often compassionate songs use words that can't be printed in this newspaper and are about such real-life issues as abortion, depression and joining the Army.

The orchestra was resplendent alone, but its dramatic impact, along with its sound, was almost superfluous when Folds played the amplified grand piano and crooned into the over-modulated microphone. Only brass and percussion consistently pierced through. The arrangements were best in such ballads as "Brick" and "Lullabye," where adding lush strings was a natural; conductor Frank McNamara barely managed to keep the syncopated rhythms together in up-tempo tunes like "One Angry Dwarf."

While it's exciting to see a great pop artist backed by a full symphony orchestra, it seems a waste of talent to use one of our country's finest classical orchestras as mere "Pips." The packed house, wild cheering and elated grins indicated that the evening was a huge success, though it remains to be seen whether this audience will return for a classical program.

Ben Folds performs with the BSO tonight at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore.

-- Gail Wein

Robert Glasper

The release last month of "Canvas," jazz pianist Robert Glasper's first CD on the prestigious Blue Note label, signaled the arrival of a young jazz musician with promise, ideas and technique. Glasper is well versed in both mainstream jazz and hip-hop culture, and though he doesn't stress the latter influence, his emphatic rhythmic cadences and offhand sparring exchanges often reveal it just the same.

At Blues Alley on Wednesday night, Glasper didn't have the advantage of working with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, who helped color "Canvas," or with neo-soul singer Bilal, who also appears on the album. Instead, Glasper, bassist Vincente Archer and drummer Damion Reid turned in a series of highly distinctive trio arrangements of original compositions and cover tunes.

Beginning with "Rise and Shine," an engaging theme drawn from "Canvas," Glasper displayed one of his more appealing stylistic traits: an affection for vamps, motifs and episodic development. In this instance, a sunny melody emerged from a dense cluster of chords and appeared all the more radiant for it. Likewise, the dramatic tension produced by the trio on "Of Dreams to Come" was sustained by a pair of recurring devices: Glasper's cascading runs and Reid's sweeping undertow.

After restructuring the Michael Jackson hit " I Can't Help It," Glasper confessed that the "random" arrangement was something he thought of as he walked onstage. It wasn't the only performance that would have benefited from a swifter resolution -- the longer ones tended to lose their shape now and then -- but like every piece the trio played, it didn't lack imagination or charm.

-- Mike Joyce

The Immortal Lee County Killers 3

Thursday's set at Iota by the Immortal Lee County Killers 3, a trio from Auburn, Ala., was dirty and greasy, like the grill at an all-night diner, and listening to it made you feel as if you'd pulled your clothes out of the hamper for the fifth day in a row. It was raw, groove-based blues rock of the most primeval kind. Intriguing original numbers alternated with cover songs that ranged from Pussy Galore's brutally chaotic "Revolution Summer" to an antique gospel number, "No More, My Lord," sung sans microphone by drummer Toko the Drifter, and accompanied on organ by John Wesley Myers.

Guitarist Chetley "Cheetah" Weise paid tribute to the past while plunging headlong into a dangerous future, twisting blues riffs around Myers's bass-heavy organ lines while Toko pounded out a beat that paid homage to the Stooges' proto-punk. Short as the songs were, they suddenly took left turns into psychedelia before veering back onto the blues road on two wheels.

"Boom Boom," with its roundhouse of a chorus, and a curious song about Mick Jagger turned Weise's guitar strings into song-cutting garrotes. He's clearly a student of the blues but deliberately plays like a wayward truant. We're not sure who the Immortal Killers dispatched with in Lee County, but they certainly nailed a few tunes at Iota.

Retro-rock night commenced with Thee Shams, a five-piece Southern rock-blues outfit straight out of a Cincinnati garage. You know how everyone says the album can't capture the excitement of the live show? Not this time: The record is definitely better than Thursday's flat presentation. Every song was in the same key and at the same tempo. The band looked and sounded exhausted.

-- Buzz McClain

Willie Nelson, shown in September, stuck with the tried and true at his Patriot Center show on Wednesday.