Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Fest brings Hippie-Country Energy to SPAC, 09/12/2021
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Willie Nelson and Family headlined at his annual Outlaw Fest on Sunday, September 12 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The country music festival returned to the venue after a two year COVID related pause, but it was as if no time had passed at all. Accompanied by Margo Price, Gov’t Mule, and the wildly talented Sturgill Simpson, Outlaw Fest brought all the joyful hippie country lovers back to SPAC for four 75 minute sets of great music.
Margo Price opened the event, striding across a smokey yellow and red lit stage in her short orange Texas jersey dress, cowgirl boots, and hat. With her tattoo peeking out on her upper left thigh, Price commanded the stage with her smooth voice marked with an occasional twang. With her raw lyrics about loneliness, Price sang “Letting Me Down” accompanied by a rock guitar that melded country to a clear rock sound. Her voice lent itself well to ballads, but she demonstrated versatility as well with fast paced tambourine playing and cowbell banging between guitar playing.
Price is a performer, capable both with her voice, fingers on strings, and percussion instruments. While her affect looked flat, her body language suggested the energy of a young rock star. She danced, jumped and played with her whole body.
Her cover of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” was a pleasant shock, as she demonstrated vocal control throughout pitch and volume while holding her stomach crooning words about independence of choice. “The song was written in 1962, but is every bit fucking important today,” Price stated flatly. Her message was a clear statement about women’s reproductive rights, one which the crowd responded to with great support.
Price is relatable in her lyrics, singing about female experiences like pleasing others more than oneself, disappointment in love, but also power and strength in work. At the close of her 75-minute set, Price threw single long stemmed red roses to the crowd, smiling and reaching out to fans with genuine ease.
Gov’t Mule took the stage after, and without even playing a note had the audience cheering. Warren Haynes is at his best on the stage with his guitar. He controlled the tempo with his bluesy guitar, transporting everyone back to the 90s. With “Hammer and Nails,” the wildly talented Haynes’ intense guitar playing bordered on heavy. The jam vibe was apparent as the songs fed into each other guided by the steady drumming of Mike Abts. A headliner themselves, Gov’t Mule led a sing along with “It’s Heavy.”
Gov’t Mule continued with Price’s flat affect, almost looking unmoved by the crowd’s love except for the occasional smile by Haynes. They had fans who were at Outlaw just for them, dancing and singing and cheering. They are a powerful band whose sound was a stormy ocean of jazz, rock, and jam music combined.
After a short set change, the crowd welcomed Sturgill Simpson on stage with his full band. Any time a stage is filled with nine talented musicians on mandolin, fiddle, standing bass, banjo, simple snare and guitars, you know you are in for a good time. Opening with “Long White Line,” the toe-tapping bluegrass vibe was set. People were up and dancing, twirling in the aisles to the fancy picking of Sierra Hull on mandolin. Simpson introduced the whole band, but it was Hull who shone. Her small frame and big smile next to Simpson on stage couldn’t be ignored.
Neither could her talent. Simpson played songs from his album Cutting Grass, Vol. 1, among others. The band’s quick pace only quickened through the initial half of their set, and after accomplishing a round of three fast and only faster songs, they were all celebratory smiles.
Simpson is able to create distinct sounds within his genre. He covered Nelson’s “Juanita,” and then his own “Oh, Sarah.” A beach Buffet energy came across loud and clear, but he was able to return with a country holler with “A Little Light.”
Simpson had a nice chatty energy with the crowd, sharing he wrote a song for Fox’s television show The Walking Dead only to be rejected. “Fox can kiss my ass,” he laughed. Simpson put the song on an album anyway. His confidence in his talent is both clear and ironically humble.
The band had a false start with “Just Let Go,” and started over. “Technically, it’s our third rehearsal. So you need to be a little patient, okay?” Simpson asked the crowd. No third start was needed; the fiddle’s whine was perfectly matched by the others musicians.
My personal favorite of Simpson’s was his soothing “Welcome to Earth.” His words to his son, “May not be my last/But you’ll always be my first” is a love song in the truest sense. With a smooth sweet start and an energized conclusion, this piece was masterful storytelling bluegrass at its best.
There was a magical chemistry among this ensemble. With songs about the passage of time, life events, and love, the lyrics stayed on my tongue as my feet tapped out the rhythms long after the band left the stage. Jim’s favorite song, “Turtles All the Way” closed the set to a standing ovation. Simpson offered one more song, but it was marred by feedback from a speaker and then balance issues with the sound.
Notable problems with the camera focus emerged during this set as well. With a band this size, the camera operator really needs to know his instrument to focus on the correct one. Instead of pointing at the banjo solo, the camera would miss it and focus on the fiddle, and then vice versa. It was distracting and very annoying at points.
Willie Nelson and his family took the stage last to a crowd who stood with respect and regard. The 88 year old spryly walked on before taking center stage, seated with his son Micah Nelson to his left. Wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt and black cowboy boots, the red white and blue strap on his guitar was the color that stood out.
“How ‘yall doin’?” he asked before launching into “Whisky River.” A huge American flag unfurled behind him. Nelson’s voice was strong, never betraying his age. He introduced his whole band, and it included his “little sister Bobbie” on piano as well as son Micah who wrote “Halfway to Heaven” for his father. They sang it together as a duet, and the pride and joy illuminated the stage. He chuckled as his son sang the line, “If I die when I’m high I’ll be halfway to heaven, or I might have a long way to fall.” The song notes Nelson’s unwillingness to age as society demands, defying expectations and touring throughout his later life.
“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies” followed by a crowd sing along. Nelson continues to play on his trusty old Martin N-20, Trigger, complete with a hole that is proof of how long it’s been by Willie’s side. Despite this, and his aging hands, his playing was solid. He played through a number of songs that became upbeat in tempo but sad in a message about leaving the earth. With “Funny How Time Slips Away,” it was hard not to realize the core reality that time is slipping away from us with Nelson.
But Nelson was cheerful as ever about it, singing his famed “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” with a smile. One had to wonder though: how much longer do we have with this giant of country music? And on stage with his son, whose adoration was apparent, the impending loss felt a bit much.
Micah seemed to be thinking the same as he launched into “Everything Is Bullshit.” His father chortled with an appreciation of his son’s perspective.
From there, Nelson took off with song after song of beloved hits. “Georgia on My Mind” was a sure crowd pleaser, especially as Rafael on the harmonica or mouth harp demonstrated his command of the instrument with ease. Nelson had folks singing along with “On the Road Again,” and of course was able to croon the apologetic “You Were Always On My Mind” with Nelson centered in a single spotlight. It was a dramatic moment.
Nelson’s sound was better than the three bands before him, perhaps because the technicians had found their stride by the time he took the stage. But the poor camera coverage was again distracting, and there were moments where the spotlight on the 88 year old made his eyes glisten in its strength.
My favorite song of the night was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Nelson joined by Price and Hull on stage. Nelson asked the crowd if they had time for another, and he launched into “It’s Hard to Be Humble” before closing out the show.
Nelson has always been easy to love. His humanity has shone throughout his career, both in his lyrics and his open love for his children. But Sunday night was the first time it became real that Nelson is a national treasure, one who might be lost due to age in the near future. There was a solemn feeling to the close of the set, a sense that perhaps we never loved and held Nelson close enough to our hearts.
We left with Nelson on our minds and in our hearts. He’s a country legend, but also a piece of our collective culture. If you can catch him on this tour, do so – before it’s too late.