Outlaw Music Festival, Scranton, PA, September 18, 2016, September 18th, 2016
Sep 30, 2016 Web Exclusive
Farm Aid has been going strong for more than 30 years, the longest running annual benefit concert in America. Now two of its principals, who have been with the festival since the beginning, have added to their daylong concert resume. On Sunday, September 18, the day after Farm Aid played Bristow, VA, Willie Nelson and Neil Young headlined the first Outlaw Music Festival in Scranton, PA.
Where Farm Aid has become somewhat predictable, with the core stable of players, Nelson, Young, John Mellencamp, and newer addition Dave Matthews, along with a rotating crop of special guests, Outlaw Festival interjects new life into the formula. Organized loosely around the idea of outlaw music, with Nelson being one of the true original outlaw country artists, the festival featured not only Nelson and Young, but also Sheryl Crow, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lee Ann Womack, and local act Cabinet, who replaced country duo Brothers Osbourne at the last minute.
Due to snarled traffic coming up the Pocono mountain to the venue, a lengthy walk from the woods parking lot, and a slow moving ticket line, the local act was missed by this reviewer, despite some vehement assertions by local fans that they were a must see.
Entering the venue, finally, between sets, the first act witnessed was Lee Ann Womack. Best known for her 2000 hit "I Hope You Dance," Womack and her five-piece band brought a true classic country presence to the festival, which was a wonderful way to start the day. Songs like "Never Again, Again," "Don't Listen to the Wind," and "A Little Past Little Rock," drove her 45 minute set, before she ended with George Jones' "You're Still On My Mind," perfectly accentuated with pedal steel guitar, and finally "I Hope You Dance" and the anthemic "Ashes By Now."
By the time Chris Robinson Brotherhood took the stage at 3:25 PM, you could smell the patchouli 15 rows back. Throughout, CRB was heavy on keyboard-accented hippie groove. The songs seemed a vehicle for the vibe, with tunes seeming to bleed into one another for a little over an hour. While CRB will never been The Black Crowes (and they don't try to be), it was good to hear Robinson's voice again, and by the time the band ended what felt like a 20-minute version of "Rosalee," all in attendance were riding free and easy.
Admittedly, Sheryl Crow seemed a somewhat odd addition. No outlaw on the surface, Crow has always had more success on the pop/alternative charts than she has in the Americana realm, despite having leaned a bit closer to that arena since her '90s heyday. She played all the hits, "Everyday is a Winding Road," "Can't Cry Anymore," the ballad "Strong Enough," augmented here with organ and upright bass, "Soak Up the Sun," and "All I Wanna Do," which she introduced by saying, "We're going to play this old song for you because we have to." Notably, Crow's set was robust with electric guitar, lending her pop songs a certain weight. And with time separating her biggest hits from her performance on this day, the tunes took on new life. Crow's stage demeanor was amiable, exalting "Willie for President," imagining the benefits of "some weed in the White House," and arguing, "I'm a little too old to be able to shake my ass," when a hula hoop was given to her onstage. [She played along and actually used it with more proficiency than she gave herself credit for.]
With the sun setting, Neil Young took the stage just before 7:00, backed by his new band Promise of the Real, led by Willie Nelson's son, Lukas, who just before played a vigorous solo set on a stage set apart from the festival main. Never knowing which Neil Young you're going to get on a given day, the show started with several acoustic numbers, including "Heart of Gold," "Hold Back the Tears," and the marvelous "Out on the Weekend," before Young grabbed the pile of setlists, scattered them to the wind, tossed his acoustic guitar, and kicked things into gear.
Starting with a rousing "Powderfinger," with Young trading electric guitar solos with Lukas Nelson, the band blazed through the rest of the set like beasts unchained. "Welfare Mothers." "Cowgirl in the Sand," with Young smiling at his young protégé during guitar solos. "Everbody Knows This is Nowhere." An 18-minute rendition of "Cortez the Killer" that ended in an explosion of noise and extended comedown. "Fuckin' Up," with the band screaming "he's a fuck up," over a wall of noise. And finally "Rockin' in the Free World," with two false endings.
After bowing with his band, Young and his young compatriots circled up on stage, arms on shoulders and jumped up and down and around in a circle with a youthful exuberance belying a man of Young's age. It was like the young bucks injected the man they called "Uncle Neil" with new life, and he sounded reborn.
And finally, the legend himself, Willie Nelson. At 83 years of age, it's a marvel that his touring schedule is so intense. Backed by his son leading a group of players under the moniker Willie Nelson and Family, Nelson brought out all the stops, beginning with "Whiskey River" and "Still is Still Moving To Me." Minus Toby Keith, he played "Beer for My Horses," before shouting, "Let's do one for Waylon," and launched into "Good Hearted Woman." After a few more certified classics, Nelson played Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Move It On Over," dedicated to the master. "It's All Going to Pot" was dedicated to his late friend merle Haggard. Nelson played "Heartaches By the Number" from his recently released tribute to Ray Price, followed by the very un-Ray Price-like "Roll Me Up."
It is obvious that Nelson is an icon without peer. Security allowed a parade of people from the lower level to walk right up the isle and take pictures of the legend on their phones, one after another. But what is most remarkable, when you get past the classic songs, the legendary persona, and the inimitable voice, is what a master guitarist Nelson still is an 83. His facility with the instrument is unmatched, and when one thinks of his 50 plus year history in music, one can only marvel.
Ending with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," Nelson brought down the house, and in classic country manner, walked off the stage leaving his band to finish the tune. The night was finally over. A long parking lot delay and snarled traffic back down the mountain awaited, but for the packed house, it was all worth it. Farm Aid is great, but let's hope Outlaw Festival comes back again next year too.
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