Living legend Willie Nelson played the Santa Barbara Bowl last Thursday night, and though the overused moniker of “living legend” is often bantered about in the music world — perhaps far too often — in 76-year-old Nelson’s case, the label is well-earned.

The proponent of American roots country music has created relevant music for more than 50 years and toured relentlessly. His bigger-than-life personal experiences and iconic image as a musical outlaw also help bolster his legendary status.

Modern-country-oriented rocker Ryan Bingham played an opening set Thursday night with his band, The Dead Horses.

Singing in his trademark gravelly voice, Bingham set the tone for the evening playing a low-key show. The 29-year-old Academy Award-winning singer has been a regular on the festival circuit for the past few years. Surrounded by indie rockers in these bigger venues, his concerts tend to be more rock oriented.

At the Bowl on Thursday night, he created a more intimate, almost folk sound. Bandmates Corby Schaub (guitar and mandolin), Elijah Ford (bass) and Matthew Smith (drums) followed Bingham’s lead playing in a style more subdued than usual. This style highlighted Bingham’s unique vocal skills more prominently and allowed an appreciative audience to absorb his masterful lyrics.

Shortly before dark, Nelson sauntered on stage with Trigger, his ragged old acoustic guitar. Like Bingham, Nelson has played countless large music festivals during the past few years and toured with a ramped-up band, to add a rock-and-roll road show sound to his live performances.

His current tour offers a much more subdued show, almost like a bebop jazz or honky-tonk club performance. He played most of the same set that his fans have come to expect over the years.

“Whiskey River,” followed by “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” is almost a mandatory opening to a Nelson concert. But with a toned-down band, his current tour offers a much more intimate and surprisingly more interesting view of the iconic songwriter’s musical talents. His twangy old guitar becomes a more prominent instrument in the mix, and his raspy vocals become easier to decipher and follow.

With fans hanging on his every word, with the ability to hear his lyrics more succinctly, seemed to bind them more tightly to their favorite musical outlaw’s performance. His toned down band included his little sister Bobbie on piano, longtime drummer Paul English on a simple single snare drum and Mickey Raphael on harmonica, with Billy English, Bee Spears and Jody Payne as backing vocalists. With Nelson’s vocals in the forefront of the subdued band, mandatory classics such as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and “On the Road Again” had fans dancing in the aisles and singing every line.

After the show, appreciative fans filed passed Nelson’s biodiesel tour bus, with wide smiles for the American icon who never seems to get tired of touring.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.