Willie Nelson & Family, Outlaw Music Festival (June 24, 2018)

photo:  Ken Settle

www.themorningsun.com/
by: Gary Graff

Playing in the late afternoon/early evening, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor promised “it’s gonna be a great night of music” on Sunday, June 24, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre.

He wasn’t kidding.

The second local year of Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival packed plenty of musical highlights into its five hours and 15 minutes. With all four acts — Nelson, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, the Head and the Heart and Old Crow — falling under the Americana heading, the package celebrated variety and diversity and was lively enough to go back quicker than its length might suggest.

The best moments, of course, were collaborative. Nelson’s famed harmonica player Mickey Raphael showed up to play several songs with Old Crow and one (“Wasting Time”) with Rateliff and his band. The latter also brought members from Old Crow and the Head and the Heart onstage for its rootsy finale rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” while most of the “cast” trooped back to join Nelson and his band for an exuberant medley of show-closing spirituals “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and” “I’ll Fly Away” and Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light.”

Those gave the evening the kind of special quality you expect from festivals, large or small. And fortunately each act’s “normal” set was exciting in their own right — starting with Old Crow’s rowdy explosion of “country music in the wolverine state.” The gang of multi-instrumentalists — including a crew member who hails from Clare, Mich., and joined the group for several songs — kept the octane high throughout its 50 minutes on stage, from the opening “Child of the Mississippi” and “Alabama High-Test” through the three-fiddler “Shout Mountain Music” and a cover of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” “Wagon Wheel,” of course, became a hearty audience singalong, while “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos” brought the set to a roaring conclusion.

Seattle’s the Head and the Heart provided a mellower musical palette cleanser with a richly melodic dozen songs highlighted by engaging performances of “Ghosts,” “Let’s Be Still,” “Library Magic” and “Living Mirage.” It was a good set-up for Rateliff and company to tear the root off with 65-minutes of brassy and sassy soul revue, keeping the DTE crowd up through hits such as “You Worry Me” and “I Never Get Old” — the latter complete with knee-drop choreography — a rowdy romp through “S.O.B.” and effectively placed ballads such as “Wasting Time” and “Hey Mama.”

And Nelson? Despite all the stoner jokes and recent health issues, the 85-year-old, red headbanded Americana patriarch was present and potent during an hour-long performance with his five piece band, singing his way through more than 20 favorites from his abundant song catalog and trading sharp, fluid solos on his beat-up Trigger guitar with Raphael and his sister, pianist Bobbie Nelson. Nelson started with a greatest hits blast — “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving To Me” and his Toby Keith duet “Beer For My Horses” — and mixed his own classics (“On The Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”) with songs he wrote for others (“Always On My Mind).

With a giant Texas flag behind him, Nelson also filled his set with salutes to his departed peers, as if serving as a curator of the Great Americana Songbook. He paid tribute to Waylon Jennings (“Good Hearted Woman”), Billy Joe Shaver (“Georgia On A Fast Train”) and Merle Haggard by way of their duet “It’s All Going To Pot,” while a Hank Williams segment featured a trio of “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” and “Move It On Over.” None of it felt happenstance, either; At the end of a long day, Nelson gave context to the more contemporary music that preceded him, leaving the DTE fans educated as well as entertained.

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