LIVE: Outlaw Music Festival @ Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 9/23/18


Review and photographs by Stanley A. Johnson

The Outlaw Music Festival featuring Willie Nelson & Family with Neil Young was one of the musical highlights of my year.

I’m not going to dwell on the overall experience at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center as defined by Live Nation and those who provided security. Let me just say it was as expensive, inconvenient and unpleasant as holiday travel at a major airport, except I didn’t have to take off my shoes. It’s going to take a hell of an interesting show for me to want to return to this venue (and I used to practically live at this place in past summers).

Despite that, I had a great musical experience once I got settled on a choice spot on the lawn. The sound throughout the day was clear and loud, but I always bring my earplugs. My spot provided a mostly unobstructed view of the stage and the screens. If I wanted to get up and dance, there were lots of others who were doing it too, so it didn’t feel awkward.

Bathroom trips, because of the extremely crowded conditions, were more of a challenge, although the bathrooms never had big lines. The reason, I soon discovered, was that some genius had blocked off more than half the back lawn for a ridiculous car show, which no one could view, because it was behind fences. What a great idea for one of the biggest festivals of the year: Take away seating and turn it into a parking lot for rich men’s cars.

I do realize that Saratoga Springs is the local playground of the wanna-be rich, but…oh, sorry, I said I wasn’t going to dwell on the negative.

Back to the music…

Particle Kid was actually Micah Nelson, one of Willie’s kids. He was here for Farm Aid five years ago with a band (Insect something, I forget). It was a nice opening set, a little edgier and louder than his brother Lukas’ set which followed. In fact, the most impressive thing about the Nelson boys was that this whole festival was pretty much their show. From start to finish, they were on stage for about eight hours total: Now that’s a full working day of fun.

Lukas, with Micah and Promise of the Real, gave a great set of heartfelt songs and hot guitar. Lukas, it appeared, was particularly popular with many women in the crowd, of whom I must respectfully not say a damn word because it will only get me in trouble with someone or other.

I settled into my chair, baking in the warm, early autumn sunshine. There were lots of others around me getting pretty baked too, but I’m sober these days. It sure smelled good, though.

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats exploded on the stage with lots of horns and funky dancing music. A real crowd pleaser for those who felt the time was to start moving and grooving.

I braved the bathroom run and took a tour of some of the vendors on the back lawn, one of which featured Willie’s blend of legal marijuana. Well, not legal in this state, but it is interesting to see actual commercial advertisements for it. You know, if the government changes its’ mind about legalization, I might have to rethink sobriety…

Next up was the, surprisingly, most rocking set of the day: Sturgill Simpson. I had wondered about his headlining a night of Mountain Jam earlier this year. After his performance at SPAC, I wonder no more. He is a guitar monster. I should have suspected when he came out with a Telecaster, and he and his band started with some modern country sounds before launching into a full-bore guitar frenzy, including, at one point, a quote from Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Yeah!

Which got the crowd riled up and in the mood for Neil and the Real. Young’s last visit to SPAC was an acoustic set at Farm Aid in 2013. This time, he played a mix of folk, country and rock from throughout his long career with the help of Lukas and Micah and band.

It was a genuinely entertaining Neil this time, with no long rambles like he did at the Farm Aid show. Speaking of which, he did speak of Farm Aid, which had happened the day before. He said it seemed like this show was just a continuation, one long Farm Aid, and he returned to that theme again later.

I don’t know if it was because of his recent marriage, of which I will not comment because someone somewhere will have something to say about it, but Neil seemed pretty happy this time around. But I loved his song selection. My favorite part was the trademark hypnotic jam that the band grooved on, this time in the extended version of “Love to Burn.” When they tore up “Ohio” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” it was release for me from some of the nasty, negative political tension that I’ve felt building for quite a while now. “Keep Hope Alive,” indeed!

Some people started packing up after this, but those who did, missed something truly special. Willie Nelson’s previous Farm Aid visit had felt rushed, following a long, wet afternoon. This time, Willie was relaxed and appeared to be greatly enjoying his time on stage.

He played almost every song I wanted to hear, (“Georgia On My Mind” instead of “Crazy” this time) and traded guitar solos with the piano and harmonica. Best of all was a jam finale of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I left thinking that if this was to be my final big SPAC show, I couldn’t imagine a better one.

The Ocean
Everything Is Bullshit

Entirely Different Stars
Die Alone
Turn Off the News
(Forget About) Georgia
Find Yourself
Something Real

Shoe Boot
Be There
Look It Here
I Did It
Say It Louder
A Little Honey
Coolin’ Out
Out On The Weekend
You Worry Me
Wasting Time
Horn section instrumental
I Need Never Get Old
Trying So Hard Not to Know
Hey Mama
I’ll Be Damned

Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)
It Ain’t All Flowers
The Promise (When in Rome)
Breakers Roar
Brace for Impact (Live a Little)
You Don’t Miss Your Water (William Bell)
Some Days
Turtles All the Way Down
Keep It Between the Lines
All Around You
Going Down (The Alabama State Troupers)
Call to Arms

Tell Me Why
Field of Opportunity
Country Home
Show Me
Heart of Gold
Lotta Love
Human Highway
Love to Burn
Are You Ready for the Country?
Rockin’ in the Free World

Whiskey River
Still Is Still Moving to Me
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings)
Down Yonder
Texas Flood (Larry Davis)
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys (Ed Bruce)
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again (with Neil Young)
Always on My Mind (Brenda Lee)
Jambalaya (On the Bayou) / Hey Good Lookin’ / Move It On Over (Hank Williams)
Nuages (Django Reinhardt)
Shoeshine Man (Tom T. Hall)
Georgia on My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael)
I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver)
Will the Circle Be Unbroken (with Neil Young and Nathaniel Rateliff)
I’ll Fly Away (Albert E. Brumley) (with Neil Young) and Nathaniel Rateliff)

Neil Young
Nathaniel Rateliff
Lukas Nelson
Willie Nelson
Sturgill Simpson
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  1. Tom says

    I was excited to have a great inside seat but the volume ruined it, painful even with earplugs. Neil Young was the only act that understood SPAC’s renown acoustics. The sound was perfect matching his performance. His show was one of this year’s highlights for me. And you’re right- he was in a great mood. That’s news itself!

  2. Stanley Johnson says

    Let me clarify that I do not blame SPAC, Live Nation, the security force or the artists for the situation that has developed in recent times over crowd safety. But the ticket price and parking fee and food & drink cost…

  3. catdeli says

    “Security” at SPAC reached a zenith of absurdity for me this year when upon approaching the gates for the Ringo Starr show I saw we had to stop and empty our pockets into a plastic bin then step through a full metal detector and if that didn’t satisfy, the guards then wiped us down with wands to ensure that Ringo’s geriatric terrorist demographic didn’t level the amphitheater. As I tossed my wallet, keys and incendiary devices into the bin I amused the attendant with a clever “You’d think this was a Slayer show!” comment. She rolled her eyes in agreement.

  4. Rudy says

    Stan ,I think part of the ticket price and parking fee price increase is due to the increased security. We have to pay for this. The promoters or any business for that matter would be hesitant to absorb those costs without passing it on to the consumer. By the way, great coverage.

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