Call it a mini picnic.
The pandemic has pushed Willie Nelson’s traditional July 4 picnic out of the way for the past two years, but when vaccines helped slow the spread of COVID-19 this spring, Nelson’s team is busy getting Willie “back on the road again”. This led to the Outlaw Music Festival, a traveling show that made its first stop at the Germania Insurance Amphitheater in Austin on Sunday.
The festival is not exactly new, although it is new to Austin. Launched a few years ago to help bring a taste of the picnic experience to other cities, it features Nelson joined by a handful of Americana-oriented artists for a longer-than-normal gig. , but not quite the marathon of its picnic shows. .
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Austin’s concert was sort of a tune-up for the main show streak, which includes 13 stops in September and October in cities from Philadelphia to San Diego. The rotating lineup of artists appearing with Nelson on these shows include the Avett brothers, Lucinda Williams, Margo Price, Gov’t Mule and Sturgill Simpson.
Austin had a particularly strong bill, as the performances of Chris Stapleton, Ryan Bingham and Yola preceded Nelson’s headliner with his group Family. Doors opened at 3:30 p.m. as a well-organized venue team guided spectators through an entry procedure that included checks for vaccination cards or recent negative COVID-19 tests.
The venue announced Wednesday that all attendees should show proof of a full vaccination taken two weeks before the show date, or a negative test within 72 hours. Such policies have been put in place locally for a few recent events at ACL Live and the Paramount Theater, but Sunday’s concert was the largest rally yet to adopt such a demand.
It is not a foolproof system, of course. The venue staff did not check the names on spectators’ vaccination cards against the names on their IDs, from what I saw. But among various measures aimed at at least reducing the likelihood of the virus spreading, it seemed effective.
The Outlaw Music Festival recommended but did not require masks; this contrasts with a mask requirement for this weekend’s Gary Clark Jr. shows at the new Moody Amphitheater which was largely ignored by spectators and not visibly enforced by the venue.
Those who arrived early were treated to the liveliest ensemble in the bunch, from rising star Yola. The British soul singer-songwriter, who was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys last year, took the stage at 5 p.m. for a 40-minute set focused on material from his new album “Stand for Myself “.
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“Hi, I’m Yola, nice to meet you,” she happily addressed the crowd as she began her set, much to the delight of some hardcore fans who already knew her – maybe from leaving. from her 2019 set at Austin City Limits Music Festival, or her recording of the “Austin City Limits” TV show last year. Supported by a group of four musicians, she quickly caught the attention of those still flocking through the doors with her powerful voice and powerful melodic song.
Then, country-folk troubadour Bingham, a former Austinian who won an Oscar in 2010 for his song “The Weary Kind” from the Jeff Bridges movie “Crazy Heart”. Playing solo can be difficult when performing in front of an audience of thousands in an outdoor amphitheater, but Bingham has succeeded like a total pro, mixing stories from his cowboy days in Midland / Odessa and border adventures in Laredo with memorable songs that spanned the range of his 15-year recording career.
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Perhaps the biggest draw of the evening – maybe even more than Nelson? – was country superstar Stapleton, who will return in November for a headlining show at the Erwin Center (with Yola and Jamey Johnson opening). His six-piece group included Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb on guitar and Nelson’s sidekick Mickey Raphael seated on harmonica, as well as his wife, Morgane Stapleton, on harmony vocals.
With the possible exception of Jason Isbell, there probably isn’t a better touring number in country music right now. Stapleton and the band have always delivered tunes ranging from the nasal honky-tonker “Nobody to Blame” to the deeply bluesy “Worry B Gone” to the closing smash “Tennessee Whiskey”, which he extended to nine minutes by introducing his fellow students. group.
Nelson took the stage at 9:30 p.m., and if it may have been a slight surprise to see him and his son Lukas, seated rather than standing, Willie has earned the right to perform as he wishes. At 88, his voice remains distinctive and resonant, while his guitar playing on Trigger still mixes country, blues, jazz, and other styles with more authority than a hotshot six-string bucket.
His hour-long set began, as always, with “Whiskey River”, before tackling tried and true classics like “On the Road Again”, “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Always on My Mind”. Her pianist sister Bobbie, who turned 90 in January, had her usual spotlight on “Down Yonder”. Bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Billy English, who took over the main kit after the death of his brother Paul last year, maintained a steady beat, while Raphael colored the tunes with lyrical harmonica solos.
Most intriguing, however, was the interaction between Willie and Lukas. The legend’s second youngest child has emerged in recent years as the most musically talented of Nelson’s offspring, and that night it almost felt like Willie was starting to pass the torch. Lukas performed a few of his best songs which were well suited to the occasion: “Just Outside of Austin”, which drew a grateful applause from the crowd in his hometown, and “Forget About Georgia”, that they cleverly incorporated into the classic “Georgia in my thoughts.”
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Most fascinating was “Just Breathe”, a song by Pearl Jam that Willie recorded as a duet with Lukas on the 2012 album “Heroes”. It was unlike anything else overall, a refreshing detour from to typical Nelson ensembles which, for all their iconic hits, can at times be a little too predictable.
It wasn’t hard to predict the finale, a mix of gospel favorites âWill the Circle Be Unbrokenâ and âI’ll Fly Away,â but the timing was no less heartwarming for its certainty. Featured Friends and Family – Yola; Willie’s daughters, Paula and Amy; and Chris and Morgane Stapleton – joined in to help sing the Outlaw Fest to a fitting conclusion. And, unlike recent picnics which often stretched beyond midnight, we all got home at a reasonable time, ready to meet the world again on Monday morning – with great music still in our heads. .