LIVE: Outlaw Music Festival 2022 (Willie Nelson, Avett Brothers, Billy Strings, Larkin Poe) @ SPAC, 09/18/2022

Willie Nelson rolled into Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center for the final Live Nation concert at the venue for the season, bringing with him family and a talented crew of younger musicians whose summer country vibe heated up the scene on this damp September Sunday.

Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival has become a staple at SPAC in the last six years, bringing a tradition of country music that crosses genres into blues, rock, and gospel. Sunday night kept to this tradition hosting Larkin Poe, Billy Strings, and the Avett Brothers before Nelson graced the stage accompanied by his youngest son Micah.

Larkin Poe (Photo by Jim Gilbert)

Larkin Poe earned a new fan base as the women rocked through a bluesy set with slide guitar prominently seducing the crowd. Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell put a spell on the crowd with their smooth vocals and technical guitar riffs as they swayed through “Bad Spell,” feeling as close to sexy as music gets. They had the soaking wet crowd clapping along before launching into “I’m a Wanted Woman,” which they dedicated to the women in the crowd. The vocals reflected a variety of styles, flexing talent and winning over new fans.

Billy Strings followed with a contrasting lush opening sound produced from the lead guitar with a standing bass for support. When the band added in banjo, the crowd erupted into wild dancing and applause. Strings himself is a hurricane, playing with a technique featuring fast fingers and bluegrass sounds that blended old-time country music with beachy music vibes. Baby-faced Strings had women screaming from the crowd, but so did his fiddle player whose featured parts had people gyrating like they were at an Elvis concert. Bluegrass is back for young folks as evidenced by the huge crowd of fans enjoying the light show accompanying his music. 

Billy Strings
Billy Strings (Photo by Jim Gilbert)

Fun to note: Strings’ set list spelled out with the first letters of each song a thank you to Willie Nelson. This small effort was a clever nod to many who came before him using set lists to communicate a larger message, and in this case, a tone of gratitude to Nelson.

The rains were pouring down as the Avett Brothers took the stage next. We saw them at Ommegang, and frankly, it was one of the summer’s best concerts, so they would have to top themselves to impress me.  Their performance was so different from what they did at Ommegang, I was instantly shocked. Opening with “Laundry Room,” the band romanced the crowd with lyrics “every chorus was your name” while quietly plucking strings, a contrast to the large sound produced prior by Strings.

The Avett Brothers shifted gears quickly at the end of the song, blending one song into the next as they jumped across the stage to “Satan Pulls the Strings” before slowing into a graceful and carefully paced harmony for which they are beloved. Their talent is reflected in their ability to control pace and volume, moving between love ballads and intense pieces with ease. The Avett Brothers have mastered the art of telling a story accompanied by fiddle in a way that is both fun and philosophical.

The Avett Brothers (Photo by Jim Gilbert)

Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s harmonica player, joined the band on stage to create some especially unique sounds to remind us we were still at a country concert. But shortly after, the band’s song was led by the cellist with an intro. The variety of genres represented so much more than we typically classify as “country.”

And that’s what makes them outlaws. With jam-like transitions, the brothers pushed through a set that defied category.

My favorite moment of the night was when the brothers introduced their sister Bonnie Avett Rini, who had been playing piano on stage throughout their set, to join them on the gospel song “In the Garden.”

Shortly after, there was an elongated drum solo that included looped rhythms that seemed to offer the musicians respite, with both lying on stage while their colleague pounded out an oddly satisfying five-minute solo.

The Avett Brothers (Photo by Jim Gilbert)

They followed this with “No Hard Feelings” before ending with a joyful, upbeat “Ain’t No Man.” The bipolar set had emotions going all over the place but chose wisely to end with a lovely upbeat message of hope that is consistent with the band’s usual messaging.

Throughout their set, it was hard to miss that the sound was unbalanced and just displeasing at times. Sound at SPAC has been hard this summer, but in this case, it was blaringly hard to tolerate as the Avett Brothers are known for their sweet sounds, not dissonance. When we walked outside, the sound improved some, which made me question if they just had everyone playing too loud overall.

Willie Nelson came on last to a very joyful crowd, many of whom were gray-haired admirers who couldn’t wait to finally see the star for whom they’d been waiting. Joined by his youngest child Micah, Nelson seemed to lean heavily on him for lyrics initially. As they got moving, though, Nelson’s memory seemed to improve. His fingers recalled the right strings with consistency over Trigger, his famous guitar.

Willie Nelson (2021) (Photo by Jim Gilbert)

The music has changed a bit for Nelson, but so has life — for Nelson and the rest of us. He’s created a legacy, though, both in his family’s musical talent and by extending that love to up-and-coming bands along the way. With “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the answer is clear: Nelson has left his mark on the outlaw music scene. Forever blending bluegrass, jazz, rock, and traditional country, Outlaw Fest is a celebration of how all genres fit together to synergistically lift us all.

Jim and I worry every time we see Nelson it will be the last, as his age is progressing and no one would begrudge the man a season of rest. We left SPAC realizing that even without Nelson, Outlaw Fest will continue and carry his message of inclusion forward. We will come again, year after year, in pilgrimage to this legend, and we hope you’ll join us on the crusade as it passes through again next year.

Photo Gallery of Avett Brothers, Billy Strings, and Larkin Poe by Jim Gilbert

  1. Carl Darnell says

    Great write up about willie s festival. Very good artists, great festival.

  2. Jim says

    Guess you didn’t catch Brittney Spencer who did a fine set and who’s guitar and keyboard players could be seen bicycling ‘round the parking lot pre show. And Willies boy Micah did a pre show set as Particle Kids. Yeah sound was a problem through the whole show . I often chalk it up to the amphitheater itself. The first artist I could make any sense of when speaking to the audience was Billy Strings. Also thought the light and camera crews were out to lunch. They had no idea who was soloing or singing for that matter through most of the show. It was a great show however all the way around. Was also at the Avett show at Ommegang and have to agree with you there. I was feeling that Scott with the trucker hat and beard and Seth with the braids had certainly fell under Willies spell.

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