Outlaw Music Festival 2017

This spring I bought tickets to the Outlaw Music Festival, because the two headliners were Eric Church (whom I have written about) and Willie Nelson (whom I haven’t but whom I adore). It was so long ago that I almost forgot I bought tickets. Luckily I remembered in time. So this past Sunday I trekked down to Camden, New Jersey for the music festival. The festival went from 1 p.m. to 10:30. The day was beautiful. The party in the parking lots felt like it had been going on for 24 hours when I showed up. It was basically a tent city. People were blaring Eric Church songs and Willie Nelson songs, “Drink In My Hand” competing with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” People had fired up the grills, kegs on tap, people were drunkenly playing horseshoes. A friendly country crowd, tattooed, long hair, Daisy Dukes, my kind of people.

Willie Nelson tours with his family, his sons, his sister Bobbie Nelson (just inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame). While Willie didn’t go on until 9:30, his son Lukas did a set early on in the day with his band Promise of the Real. Lukas is a hell of a guitar player. Deep blues riffs. I enjoyed the song titled “I Hope You Find Yourself Before I Find Somebody Else To Be My Lover.” It’s a good stance to take in any relationship. He sounds a lot like his dad. He’s got a powerful and very big voice. The family atmosphere was intense.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real

In introducing his song “Forget About Georgia”, Lukas described breaking up with a girl named Georgia, and how it was impossible to move on from her because touring with his father they played “Georgia On My Mind” every night. Lukas wrote the song to get her out of his system.

Next up was Nathan Rateliff & The Night Sweats. They turned the crowd into a united group, turned the place into a party. A lot of people didn’t even arrive until 5 or 6, clearly coming just for Eric Church and Willie Nelson, but each band had its fervent followers.

I was not familiar with Nathan Rateliff but they were fantastic, a gigantic sound, and 100% positive energy. Infectious. People were dancing in the aisles.

Meanwhile, the sun was slowly going down, and the huge lawn in back of the pavilion was filling up. That’s when I got the shot at the top of this post, purely by accident. Or, not accident, but I happened to turn around at exactly the right time, and the girl in the straw hat was perfectly silhouetted, standing by herself, with the red sun bursting out near the horizon.

Then came The Avett Brothers, whose set made me cry. With happiness and joy. I have a lot of their stuff in my music collection but have never seen them live (nor have I seen the documentary made about them). They started out their set with just the three of them, singing three-part harmony. Sweet and simple. But then the band joined them and things got crazy. Loud and thrilling. They’re incredible.

I was the woman sitting there with tears streaming down my face listening to “Murder in the City.” It made me miss my siblings. We have all had a hard year. I see them, but not enough. We are a very close family. That song made me present to my family, our feelings for each other, our parents, their legacies to us our love for each other. Huge fan of the Avett Brothers.

Next up was Sheryl Crow. I’ve never seen her live. It was good to have at least one woman on the bill. We can be outlaws too. One of the things that really struck me about her was how incredible her voice is live. (This was true of all of the acts on the bill.) These people are real musicians, who cut their teeth playing live. They are not studio-created phenoms. They need to know how to carry a song through, beginning to end, live. It’s so bizarre, I mean it seems like that’s the bare minimum that a performer should know how to do … but you see some of these young kids pumped up into stardom and they barely know how to walk across a stage. They need LOTS of backup and choreography to cover the fact that they don’t know how to “work a room” AND cannot re-create live what was created for them in the studio.

I am not SURPRISED that Sheryl Crow is a good live performer. She’s very relaxed, and her voice is pure and clear. She enjoys herself up there. She doesn’t appear to work hard. (Of course she DOES work hard, but the effect is one of ease and comfortability.) She needs nothing but herself, her voice, her guitar. That’s who she is. I also loved when she talked about touring with Willie Nelson, and how just the night before they had done a benefit for Farm Aid, meeting all of these farmers in the process. “It made me proud to be an American,” she said. Damn straight. Generosity. Hard work. Helping others. That’s what she was talking about.

Finally, it was time for Eric Church. I felt like I was 15 years old. Well, I always do, but here I felt it even more intensely. I noticed immediately that the busy roadie crew (and boy, they run that show like a well-oiled machine. It’s 6 or 7 different load-ins and load-outs. And every act started more or less on time. Amazing) just brought on a couple of guitars, one mike, and a stool for Eric Church. No band set up. No drums. Would this be an acoustic set? Just him?

Yes. It was just him. “This is terrifying,” he said. “This is gonna be just you and me. But these are the way the songs were when I first wrote them.”

There was a raw-ness in all of this. The songs, of course, sounded different, because with his band comes a HUGE sound. He’s as much metal-influenced as he is country-influenced. He had four different guitars, and he kept switching, from one to the other. So there were silences as he did this. There were thousands of people there but it felt like we were in a small club. I realized early on that what was happening was relatively unique and that I was lucky to be there to witness it. I would love to see him live with his band, and I will, but this was different. There was nothing between us and him.

He played many of his hits. One of the things I love so much about him is how funny his lyrics can be. “I believe Jesus is coming back before she does.” “She grabbed a beer / Said ‘I’m outta here.’ / And walked out of my life. / That was a cold one.” “She got a rock. I’m gettin’ stoned.”

He drank whiskey. As he always does. He’s a wild one. He’s funny. He’s vulnerable. Who admits they’re terrified in front of a huge crowd right before starting? He stopped himself just in time before saying “fuck.” Best of all, he took requests. There were thousands of people there! Some chick screamed something at him from the front row, and he said, “Sure, I’ll do that one” and launched into it. He sang his song for Merle Haggard. He ended with his song for Bruce Springsteen.

Many of his songs are tributes to others, his expression of the continuum he wants to be a part of, but also his celebration of those who came before.

At the end of “Springsteen,” his final song on the set, he added the lyrics at the very end, “We’re all waitin’ on Willie …”

A true showman.

Plus he’s hot as hell.

The anticipation was so intense for Willie Nelson that people started screaming during the roadie set-up. His band strolled on first and everyone went apeshit, and when he appeared the audience raised the roof. As he started his set, a gigantic Texas flag unfurled on the back wall. Hurricane Harvey was on his mind. It’s been on everyone’s minds. The stage was crowded with his people, harmonica, drums, Lukas, his sister Bobbie on piano (she’s so amazing). But then there’s Willie Himself.

His guitar playing can only be called transcendent. He’s truly “touched”. The sounds he made from that battered guitar (you could see how battered it was on the gigantic screens above the stage) are otherworldly. It talks. It comments on the song. It’s sometimes completely separate from the melody. Something ELSE is going on with that guitar while the song continues on. He’s a master. His voice was powerful, and the duets he did with his sons even more so … since the timbre of their voices are all so similar.

It was Hank Williams’ birthday, and he played two Hank Williams’ songs. “Move It On Over” and “I Saw the Light.” It was an all ages crowd, thousands of people, singing along. In such troubled dark times it did the heart and soul good.

He played “Promised Land” and the poignancy was so sharp it almost hurt. It felt like the world stood still.

He closed out with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” melding into “I’ll Fly Away” and at one point the Avett Brothers and Nathan Rateliff joined the already large group onstage. Suddenly we were at a gospel revival. Exhilarating. Thousands of people singing along.

Willie Nelson threw his hat into the crowd.


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2 Responses to Outlaw Music Festival 2017

  1. What a sweet review of a great show. Thanks!

    • sheila says:

      Bill – Thanks for reading. It was so much fun! Willie!! I’ve always known his guitar playing was special – but seeing it live gave me a whole new appreciation.

      Any thoughts on that? I don’t really have words for what he does. Maybe you do?

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