Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Fest Proves He’s “Still Not Dead”
SARATOGA SPRINGS–If you get the chance to see Willie Nelson perform live, go. Don’t think about it, just go.
Willie Nelson was in town with his beloved Outlaw Fest, a staple at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center each summer. Historically, a full day of music, including many young musicians whom Nelson would showcase, this year’s Outlaw Fest broke from that model. Starting at 5 on a Friday rather than at 2 on a Sunday, the festival featured more established bands, including Los Lobos, String Cheese Incident, and Bobby Weir and the Wolf Bros. Band, before Nelson himself took the stage at 10 pm. After the sun dropped below the horizon, it was sweater weather, with folks bundling up to face the 50-degree temperatures.
Despite this shortened day, the festival continued with the festive feel to it. Complete with a small Shakedown Street, the setting was beautifully animated by fans dressed in lights, tie dies, and, of course, smiles. Nelson is still plucky at age 90. Performances by Los Lobos and String Cheese Incident delighted fans (and was likely the crowd fave of the night), although the amphitheater was sadly barren compared to later in the evening. Many ticket holders missed fantastic opening sets. Los Lobos’ set was passionate and precise, and String Cheese’s set combined the Americana style with jam music, much to the delight of the folks who came early.
Many fans were suddenly present for Bobby Weir and his Wolf Bros Band. His set was comprised of unique but very pleasing versions of many Grateful Dead songs, and the crowd went a bit wild as he opened with “Bertha.”
Weir’s vocals are still strong, but his guitar playing is what still seems to command the presence and focus on stage. Unabashed at playing Dead covers, Weir only strayed from his cannon of past music with a Marty Robbins cover of “El Paso.” He humbly took a bow after his almost two-hour set that ended with “Sunshine Daydream.” Different from Dead and Company, Weir and the Wolf Brothers Band is a delightful way to keep Dead fans returning for more.
After a brief intermission, Willie Nelson quietly walked onto the stage and into the spotlight that shone only for him. Historically flanked by his sons and sister on stage, this year, he was playing solo. His son Micah had become ill, and his other son Lucas is touring with his band, The Promise of the Real. His sister has sadly passed away since we last saw Nelson. Nelson was flanked by his band, which he calls “The Family,” which prominently features Mickey Raphael on harmonica prominently throughout the set.
Nelson is still joyful on stage, and appears resolute to perform regardless of the microphone slipping and a cough noticed by this writer. Without Micah beside him singing along, it was easier to hear his voice shake a bit and to notice some balance and tuning issues with Trigger, his trusty guitar.
Despite these small issues, he is still the Willie Nelson who croons advice to mothers about their sons becoming cowboys, the comedian and cannabis advocate who begs “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” with a smile, and the lover who covered Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” with the spirit of a man who could show a woman what it means to experience love.
Because he is Willie Nelson, after all, regardless of age, his spirit remains.
With a nice balance of covers and his own tunes, Nelson held his own on stage, as I hope he does for many years to come.