Willie Nelson & Family at Outlaw Music Festival in Tampa (Oct 7, 2023)


TAMPA — Willie Nelson knew what the audience was thinking about his age.

The 90-year-old singer didn’t need to say anything about the subject. He already had a song for it, pulled from a 2017 recording that still felt relevant on Saturday night.

“I woke up still not dead again today….” Nelson crooned to a packed MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. “Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play.”

Nelson grinned as he picked away on Trigger — a guitar that’s been around so long that it has a Wikipedia page of its own, plus a jagged hole by the bridge caused by years of fervid strumming.

Other than blowing kisses to fans as he shuffled onstage, Nelson remained in his chair through the concert. His trademark braids, long enough to kiss the tops of his thighs while seated, glowed white. But if you closed your eyes, it was like no time had passed. That gravelly baritone — warbling, growling, or just simply narrating to the beat — was unmistakably Willie.

Nelson came to Tampa as the headliner of the 2023 Outlaw Music Festival, a musical tradition he started back in 2016. Since then, it’s been a platform for new and established artists from across the Americana, folk and country universe. This year, the tour also doubled as an extended 90th birthday celebration for its founder.

Nelson’s Florida fans dressed for the occasion, donning cowboy hats and red bandanas to match the Red Headed Stranger. At least a dozen wore T-shirts with the slogan, “Have a Willie nice day.”

Particle Kid — aka Nelson’s son, J. Micah Nelson — was supposed to perform first. A case of debilitating vertigo caused him to back out, so Waylon Payne (guitarist and vocalist for Nelson’s touring band, the Family) stepped in.

After that, there was country singer and radio host Elizabeth Cook. Southern rock jam band Gov’t Mule, a side project for a few members of the Allman Brothers Band, followed her. Then the Avett Brothers bounded onstage for the longest — and perhaps most energetic — performance of the evening.

The Avett Brothers brought singalongs ( “Ain’t No Man”) and extended jam sessions (”Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise“). Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s harmonica player for over 50 years, even joined the band for a few tunes. During “I and Love and You,” the crowd swayed while thrusting one-two-three fingers into the air along to the chorus.

Scott Avett took a break from prancing around with his banjo to sing a solo version of “Murder in the City.” Seth Avett gave his best preacher impression during “High Steppin’,” saying, “Every single soul in the house tonight is a source of hope for sure. If you feel like hope tonight, make a joyful sound!” Harmonizing together — especially with a syrupy fiddle or a cool thump of the upright bass — their sound was pure magic.

photo: Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times

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After over 80 years in music and 150 plus albums, Nelson had plenty of material to choose from. He did not deprive Tampa of the favorites — “On the Road Again”, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Over half of the songs performed were covers that Nelson has made his own over the years, like Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River.”

Our cowboy troubadour showed his sassy side, too, thrusting a finger in the air as he sang, “The world’s getting smaller and everyone in it belongs/ And if you can’t see that Mr. Purified Country/ Why don’t you just write your own songs?”

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