Avett Brothers, Van Morrison among highlights at Outlaw Music Festival
HERSHEY — Last year, country music icon Willie Nelson debuted a new project that brought together many of his famous friends for a rowdy, day-long party at Scranton’s Pavilion at Montage Mountain known as the Outlaw Music Festival. The inaugural event was viewed as a success with acts like Nelson, Neil Young and Sheryl Crow delivering powerhouse sets.
Almost a year later, the Outlaw Music Festival returned to Pennsylvania, but instead of Scranton, it took a ride down 81 South to Hershey, where Nelson, Crow, the Avett Brothers, Margo Price, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, and the legendary Van Morrison joined forces for an immensely entertaining day of music.
Early in the day, as people started to roll in (there was a huge tailgating scene across several parking lots), Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real breezed through a short set of cuts like “Ain’t Gonna Die Alone,” “Four Letter Word,” and “Something Real.” Bookended by Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, the outfit is a driving force on louder songs, but can sound like a well-polished acoustic ensemble when needed. After their set, both Nelsons would appear on stage throughout the rest of the day during other artists’ performances.
Margo Price, a 34-year-old rising country star from Nashville, Tenn., delighted the crowd with some tender yet twangy cuts like “Paper Cowboy,” but also mixed in some thumping numbers, including “Tennessee Song,” and “Weakness.” Price threw in an homage to Neil Young — who she’ll be sharing the stage with at Farm Aid — with “Human Highway,” which featured Lukas and Micah Nelson, and enticed the crowd to help her do a spot-on version of the Kris Kristofferson staple “Me and Bobby McGee,” which also had Willie Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael joining the jam.
Led by brothers Scott and Seth, The Avett Brothers took to the stage with a large portion of their rabid fan base filling in the front of the stadium’s floor section. Filled with energy and commanding stage presence, the band dazzled with fiery acoustic runs through tracks like “Laundry Room,” a harmony heavy “True Sadness,” and a tight “The Race Is On,” which Scott Avett said was introduced to the band from both country legend George Jones and The Grateful Dead, who famously covered the song hundreds of times throughout their career.
Touring member Tania Elizabeth brought on one of the vocal highlights of the day as she led the band through a brilliant take on Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” which brought the set to a close.
A returning act to the Outlaw Festival, female rocker Sheryl Crow performed a mostly hit-saturated set, although it was continuously marred by sound issues including blown-out stage monitors. Always a professional performer, Crow delighted with spirited renditions of fan favorites like “Can’t Cry Anymore,” “Every Day Is a Winding Road,” and “My Favorite Mistake.”
Rather than just play all the hits, Crow delivered two cuts from her recently released album “Be Myself,” including the album’s namesake and the self-reflective “Long Way Back.” Margo Price emerged to share vocal duties on Crow’s ’90s love ballad “Strong Enough” which proved to be a set highlight. The popular “If It Makes You Happy” led into Crow tipping her hat to one of music’s original outlaws, the late Gregg Allman. A bluesy interpretation of the Allman Brothers Band staple “Midnight Rider” had Lukas Nelson and Price helping to bring the hour-long set to a strong close.
Easily the feature point of the festival, Sir Van Morrison, took to the stage to deafening applause. A 50-plus-year veteran of the Irish music scene, Morrison is one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, with 36 solo albums of original material, and his inclusion in Them, a mid-’60s R&B band that helped redefine what popular music could sound like.
Taking the stage looking dapper in a pressed suit, round hat and signature sunglasses, Morrison led his tight band through a jazzy improvisational jam, which showcased some nice saxophone work from the frontman. Toward the end of the jam, the familiar jazzy drums and piano to the Morrison chestnut “Moondance” elicited one of the biggest pops of the day. When the opening sounds, the listener can’t help but wonder how his voice will compare to the 1970 studio track. A few short seconds later, applause started again as the 72-year-old icon’s voice sounded nearly identical to the original recording.
The slower combination of “Warm Love” and “Sometimes We Cry” led into the bluesy “Roll With the Punches,” which showcased some of the best vocals of Morrison’s set. Not one to overlook his days with Them, Van the Man brought new energy to the thumping blues of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” a rollicking cut from 1964, the B-side to which would eventually gain more notoriety than the single. The song eventually served as a catalyst for Morrison to explore blues and R&B with transitions between “Parchman Farm,” “Don’t Start Crying Now,” and “Here Comes the Night.”
A lively “Cleaning Windows” was the most personal offering of his set as Morrison was a window cleaner before joining Them. Although his enormous catalogue is full of hits, Morrison is known to steer away from radio friendly songs, which many in the crowd seemed to feel was the case after “Moondance.” Luckily, the familiar guitar riff to “Wild Night” brought everyone to their feet to dance along to the reworked version.
The country laden “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” blended perfectly into “Whenever God Shines His Light,” a rhythmic gospel number that showcased the diversity of Morrison’s music. Returning to jazz, Morrison led his immensely talented band through a beautiful “Help Me,” which was popularized by Sonny Boy Williamson.
You never know when Van Morrison can end a show. Most artists follow the blueprint of ending with a big hit, but Morrison does not follow a template and could easily leave the crowd wondering why he didn’t give them what they want.
Hershey didn’t have to worry as the instantly recognizable opening of “Gloria” brought everyone to their feet for one final sing-along. Originally released as the B-side to “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” the song immediately took on a life of its own upon release and became the go-to anthem for any band starting off in a garage or small club. The song was reworked as Morrison can no longer deliver the snarling, raucous vocals he did as an angst fueled 19-year-old, but instead delivered the song with the soul and respect it deserves in 2017.
Much like the aftermath of last years’ set by Neil Young with Promise of the Real, festival curator Willie Nelson had enormous shoes to fill following the powerhouse performance.
At age 84, Nelson is an American icon. His music career has spanned over 60 years; his songwriting is legendary; and it’s safe to say, if it weren’t for Willie Nelson, country music today might be much different. For the better part of the last decade, Nelson’s shows have mostly followed the same pattern of songs — tracks that take you through his entire career. “Whiskey River,” and “Still is Still Moving to Me,” meshed into a song he did with Toby Keith, “Beer For My Horses.” His son Lukas took over lead vocals for an eerily timed “Texas Flood,” which showcased some lead guitar playing from the older Nelson on his trusty, battle-worn guitar, Trigger.
For those in the crowd who only know his hits, Nelson obliged with standard runs through “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Always On My Mind,” and his touring anthem “On the Road Again.” For the ending, Nelson brought out Crow and Price to help him blaze through his ode to horticulture, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” before exiting with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken/I Saw The Light.”
In its second year, the Outlaw Music Festival has become one of the best single-day festivals on the circuit. This year marked the first time the festival has commenced as a tour, and nearly each stop has a different lineup from the others. With the inclusion of Van Morrison, Hershey seems to be the stop of the tour, and with Neil Young’s fiery set last year, it seems Pennsylvania always lucks out with quality shows. Let’s hope Nelson does the same next year.