Willie Nelson & Family, Outlaw Music Festival (June 23, 2018)

by:  David Lindquist

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Dang, it felt good to be an outlaw Saturday at Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center.

With apologies to the Geto Boys and their gangster anthem, the Outlaw Music Festival made a smashing Indiana debut led by national treasure Willie Nelson and rising iconoclast Sturgill Simpson.

At age 85, Nelson is still breaking ground. The Outlaw Music Festival debuted with a single date in 2016, followed by 10 shows in 2017. The multi-act tour will visit about 20 cities this summer.

Nelson — a trailblazer in the “outlaw country” movement for more than 45 years — headlines all the shows, supported by a rotating roster of opening acts.

Roots-rock master JD McPherson opened Saturday’s show, giving him leeway to joke about the Outlaw caravan being “a lot better than the in-law festival.”

In reality, none of the day’s acts gloated or preened about being “outlaws.” If the label applies to Nelson, Simpson, McPherson and fellow acts Old Crow Medicine Show and the Head and the Heart, all five cut against the grain and go their own way when most people are going somewhere else.

Check out five ways the Outlaw festival was the place to be:

1. Willie’s congregation

Wearing a black T-shirt promoting the island of Maui, Nelson sounded slightly unsteady on opening number “Whiskey River.” But he was tuned up and ready to roll for follow-up “Still is Still Moving to Me” and the remainder of his hour onstage. Although Nelson didn’t need the help, he called on the audience to pick up key lines in the songs “Beer for My Horses,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and “On the Road Again.” It added up to a communal experience that paralleled Nelson’s willingness to share the spotlight with harmonica player Mickey Raphael and “little sister” piano player Bobbie Nelson (who’s 87, two years older than Willie). The feel-good performance ended with a salvation-themed trilogy of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” featuring backing vocals from McPherson and members of Old Crow Medicine Show and the Head and the Heart.

2. Enduring artistry

Nelson delivered a winner without singing signature songs “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.” An unidentified instrumental may have contained elements of “Crazy” and “Night Life” (or it may have been a Django Reinhardt tribute?), showcasing Nelson’s acoustic-guitar knack for bright tones, syncopation and rough-hewn repetition. The audience swooned when he turned the number over to Bobbie. More guitar prowess was on display during “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” a sparkling rendition you could swap with any he played in 1988, 1998 or 2008.

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Willie Nelson’s set list

1. “Whiskey River” (Johnny Bush cover)
2. “Still is Still Moving to Me”
3. “Beer for My Horses” (2002 duet by Toby Keith and Nelson)
4. “Good Hearted Woman” (Waylon Jennings cover)
5. “It’s All Going to Pot” (2015 duet by Merle Haggard and Nelson)
6. “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” (Ed Bruce cover)
7. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”
8. “On the Road Again”
9. “Always On My Mind” (originally recorded by Gwen McRae and Brenda Lee)
10. “Down Yonder” (Bobbie Nelson piano showcase, written by L. Wolfe Gilbert)
11. “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” (Lefty Frizzell cover)
12. Unidentified instrumental
13. “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” (Billy Joe Shaver cover)
14. “Still Not Dead”
15. “Shoeshine Man” (Tom T. Hall cover)
16. “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (Hank Williams cover)
17. “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” (Hank Williams cover)
18. “Move It On Over” (Hank Williams cover)
19. “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
20. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away” (pre-World War II hymns)
21. “I Saw the Light” (Hank Williams cover)

Sturgill Simpson’s set list

1. “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”
2. “It Ain’t All Flowers”
3. “The Promise” (When In Rome cover)
4. “Breakers Roar”
5: “Some Days”
6: “California Women” (Hoyt Axton cover)
7: “Turtles All the Way Down”
8. “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
9. “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”
10. “All Around You”
11. “Goin’ Down” (Freddie King cover)
12. “I’d Have to be Crazy” (Steve Fromholz cover)
13. “Call to Arms”
14. “The Motivator” (T. Rex cover)

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