From his braids and red bandana to openly smoking weed and toting his tried and true, battle-tested guitar, Trigger, Willie Nelson has always done it his way. Which, along with his amazing body of work, is what has made him a pioneer of the Outlaw Country movement. So when he decided to create his own Outlaw Music Festival, Nelson made sure to enlist artists cut from that same rebel cloth.
Held Sunday, September 18th, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at the Pavilion on Montage Mountain – the site of another curated festival, the Allman Brothers' Peach Festival – the inaugural Outlaw gathering featured performances by Neil Young and Promise of the Real, Sheryl Crow, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lee Ann Womack and local jam-grass heroes Cabinet.
Despite coming just a day after Nelson's own Farm Aid benefit concert in Bristow, Virginia, the Red Headed Stranger was in spry form, showing little road weariness. He wasted scant time upon taking the stage, launching into his faithful opener "Whiskey River." Nelson's unique guitar style, neither rhythm nor lead but deftly filling the spaces his distinctive voice leaves open with classical and blues-rooted riffs, made its usual, reverberating mark.
For "Still Is Still Moving to Me," off 1993's Across the Borderline, Nelson's long-time collaborator and harmonica sideman Mickey Raphael pushed his harp to the edge. Nelson, meanwhile, barely took a breath between tunes, playing 19 songs in an hour, doling out quick but poignant versions of Ed Bruce's "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and "On the Road Again" – currently used to full effect in a Volkswagen commercial that also features a cameo by Nelson. During the former song, Nelson's iconic voice sounded more like it was lending grandfatherly advice than delivering lyrics.
Nodding to Hank Williams, Nelson and his Family Band played a swinging "Hey Good Lookin'" and a bluesy "Move It On Over," and remembered Merle Haggard with their recent collaboration "It's All Going to Pot." The green theme continued when Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah joined him for a proud version of "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
Lukas and Micah pulled double duty at Outlaw, also backing up Neil Young with their band the Promise of the Real. But Young, the celebrated system-bucker and revered songwriter, took the stage alone for the beginning of his set, delivering "Heart of Gold" with nothing but guitar and harmonica.
When Promise of the Real joined him onstage, four-part vocals on "Human Highway" provided Young with harmonies on par with his Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young days. An inspired "Powderfinger" brought the set to an electric crescendo, before the godfather of grunge returned for a long, improvised version of "Cortez the Killer," which featured Young's moody, droning solos in contrast to Lukas's sweet and soulful guitar work.
Sheryl Crow leaned heavily on her vast array of hits for her appearance, setting "Every Day Is a Winding Road" on fire with wicked slide guitar work and crooning a particularly passionate "Strong Enough." Crow showed off her outlaw side in the form of 2013's "Best of Times," playing ferocious harmonica while her five-piece band roared into a country-tinged jam to end the set in rebellious fashion.
Elsewhere, Lee Ann Womack's set was highlighted by a swooning "I Hope You Dance," a forlorn "Don't Listen to the Wind," with sorrowful fiddle, and a dark, swampy reading of "The Way I’m Livin'." Chris Robinson Brotherhood delivered on the Southern rock and blues front, and also provided a healthy dose of psychedelia with "Narcissus Soaking Wet," off their Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel LP.
Cabinet, one of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know, took their hometown stage with the barnyard stomp of "Miss Molly" and drove an instrumental freight train over the mountain between verses of "I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow."