Outlaw Music Festival Review
Image Credit: Blackbird Presents For an event called the “Outlaw Music Festival”, one would expect the majority, if not the entirety of the music played there to be country. And while many of the artists who played the Festival in Scranton, PA on September 18th had roots based in traditional country music, I found that the principle I learned from arguably the most important headlining act, Neil Young, applies to the festival as well: expect the unexpected. What I was instead treated to was an eclectic collection of musicians playing songs that more often than not fell under a number of genres. With a lineup including the likes of Mr. Young, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, as well as a few other acts, one should expect diversity. In this sense, the Outlaw Music Festival was a success, as it did not just provide a clean cut package of predetermined music never deviating beyond the preset genre boundaries advertised, but it opened the audience up to new musicians touting a more foreign sound, taking country music and rock music to exciting new places.
My immediate decision to snatch up tickets for this event was decided by the headline that Neil Young was playing a festival in Scranton, PA, a mere hour and a half from Bucknell University’s campus. The answer came immediately and was obvious (I should note here that as more of a hardcore fan of Neil Young, this review will cover his setlist in far more depth than the other artists). With tickets secured for my father and I at least a month before the event, I could only wait with anticipation. Leaving (reasonably) early on a Sunday morning, we arrived at Montage Mountain at noon. The facility is located in a nice serene areas, frequently shadowed by pine trees. After scooping up some merch (nothing says “America” quite like a Willie For President poster), I wandered around the premise, and suddenly found myself exposed to the opening act.
Cabinet, formed in 2006, is a band local to Scranton, but has apparently been gaining traction with a respectable fanbase. They have been going under a number of genre labels; a few of these that I have heard floating around include “newgrass” and “slamgrass”. Only seeing them from a distance and hearing the music flow through the venue, I can make the following observations: while utilizing bluegrass instrumentation (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, upright bass, acoustic guitar), the collective often refrained from playing pure bluegrass (aside from a few breakouts). Instead, they took a much more experimental approach. The fiddle player was notable for creating a number of extended drones likely via looping devices and reverb effects, giving the music an atmosphere much more resembling that of post rock. The effect was captivating, and I stopped what I was doing numerous times to take in what was happening. Out of these drones would evolve more straightforward rock melodies, once again, giving bluegrass a backseat. I wish I could have seen more of this band, and I definitely plan to check out their latest release, 2015’s Celebration.
Having taken my seat, Lee Ann Womack took the stage. While I knew relatively little of her at the time, I now know that she has been consistently putting out country music since 1997. She even had a Billboard Top 15 song, 2000’s “I Hope You Dance”. What she gave the audience was a tight setlist of 8 original songs, along with one George Jones cover (“You’re Still On My Mind”). Nowhere during the performance did the consistency falter. Each song followed each other perfectly, smoothly transitioning along. Womack’s style is a callback to more traditional country artists such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. The result is respectful to the original inspiration, while not directly aping it either. Though I can’t really recall any of the songs in too much detail, I can say that Ms. Womack’s performance was enjoyable throughout, and it is refreshing to hear the return of a form of country seemingly buried beneath the garish excesses that make up modern pop-country.
For those who don’t know, Chris Robinson was the singer of popular blues rock band The Black Crowes. Not being a fan or very familiar with the band (I did enjoy their 2000 live album with Jimmy Page, “Live At The Greek”, though) I didn’t really know what to expect of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. I suppose the CRB took a few pages from the Crowes, borrowing their bluesy jam style that evokes that of bands like the Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead. However, I personally found the majority of their setlist rather dull. It must be said that the songs were not bad, one could tell they were written by a seasoned musician. However, they felt as if they lacked any real immediacy or new ideas. I understand that this band would appeal to a lot of people, especially fans of 60’s and 70’s rock (like the stoned-free dancing neo-hippies I caught on film). For that, I will draw the conclusion that the Chris Robinson Brotherhood are a talented bunch of men who have been at for a long time, which raises the following question: Can you be too old to rock (this will be addressed later.)?
At this point, our jovial emcee of sorts announced that Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were performing a set at the smaller stage outside the main venue area. Like Bernie Sanders in the presidential race, I was off and running, only to get caught up in a crowd of buffoons. Fighting my way through the crowd, I made it to the very front of the compact stage. I was blindsided by a 5 song set list of high octane blues rock, making everything played earlier in the day seem trivial in comparison. Lukas is the son of Willie Nelson, and
his band specializes in a blues-country rock hybrid. It is worth mentioning that Micah, one of Willie’s other sons, is a member of the band as well. From the anecdotal “Running Shine”, to the downright raucous and fervent title track of their latest album “Something Real”, the Nelson boys showed a true, unparalleled energy unlike any of the other previous acts. Jumping about and striking poses, the whole band was clearly having the time of their lives. Afterwards, I even got to shake Lukas’ hand, and while Lukas was getting all the attention, I even drew bassist Corey McCormick over to the side of the stage to let him know of my satisfaction with his performance. Promise of the Real are a spectacle live, and I encourage everyone to look for videos of them on YouTube to really get an idea of what they are about.
The clouds clear, and the star power truly begins to shine. Returning to the main stage, I arrive in time to see Sheryl Crow take the stage before an ecstatic crowd. Opening with the old hit “Everyday Is A Winding Road”, Sheryl sets the tone for what is to come: a setlist straight off of a greatest hits album. Though I am not too familiar with the woman’s discography (a running theme so far), I recognized many of the signature hooks and choruses throughout the performance, and enjoyed them accordingly. I've always thought of Sheryl as more of a pop artists with country aesthetics, and that impression was affirmed here. There is nothing wrong with this, however, and it suited her and her very talented backing band quite well. Guitarist Peter Stroud demonstrated chops to be proud of, and keyboard player Jen Gunderman proved her multi instrumental talent when she switched to accordion on “Strong Enough”, I highlight of the set. Though there were a few too many audience sing along moments, Crow finished her set with two of her biggest hits: “If It Makes You Happy” and “Soak Up The Sun”. The former being one my favorite songs of her’s, I found that it was executed tastefully. Without any garish instrumentals or visuals to distract from the performance, one could see Crow exercise control over her voice, never falling flat, but never aiming for noted too strenuous as to cause strain. “Soak Up The Sun” ended the set predictably, with an easy crowd pleaser/clap-along. While the set list might have been somewhat insubstantial to the hardcore Crow fan, I'm sure casual fans and the average music listener would find the performance satisfactory, as I did. At the age of 54 and not getting any younger, I would say Sheryl Crow’s live show was a success.
Can you be too old to rock? Try asking Neil Young this question. Now 70 years old, the legendary songwriter of the 60’s/70’s/90’s (80’s and 00’s are optional) is peaking. Which is interesting, considering he has peaked not once, but 3 or 4 times throughout his career. The man continues to astonish, and his recent recruitment of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real continues this trend. The band has seemingly served as a well of youthful energy that Neil has tapped and sucked dry (He's a vampire, babe). This was clear when I saw him perform with last year at the Riverbend in Cincinnati. Then supporting his newly released album “The Monsanto Years” (an album I remember for its passable, even exciting at times instrumentals, weighed down by awkward, ham fisted lyrics that could have been sharpened with revision), Young delivered a set consisting of some of the greatest hits (for most artists, this is expected, but for Young, this comes as a pleasant surprise), a few deep cuts (“Words”, “From Hank To Hendrix”), and a glut of Monsanto songs (while I actually think “Big Box” is a damn good rocker, the rest leave me desiring something more). Though the concert slightly lagged during the middle due to the Monsanto material, it was still an utterly mind blowing experience, one of the finest concerts I could imagine. I am proud to report that with this latest performance, Neil has trimmed all of the fat, and leaves us with a lean and vicious beast of a show. Standing at the very front of the stage, I was ushered away back to my seat, but not before the man himself emerged from backstage, leaving a good 13 feet between us.
Neil began with one of his most recognizable (though hardly his greatest) songs, “Heart Of Gold”. To clarify, this is not a bad song by any means, but in terms of depth, it is merely scratching the surface in terms of his discography. Following this, Promise of the Real joined Neil on stage, cranking out “Out On The Weekend”, “Unknown Legend”, and “Human Highway”, 3 country-rock standards from throughout his career. Pausing for a second, Neil remarks on the moon, which reminded me that the harvest moon was showing itself. Predictably, the band plays the ever touching “Harvest Moon”, as long married couples share a dance together. The band proceeds to play a favorite of mine, the underrated classic off of 1977’s “American Stars N’ Bars”, “Hold Back The Tears. Neil’s vocals sound incredible, as had been the constant throughout the show.
Before I even realized what was happening, Neil was wielding Old Black (his trusty 1953 Gibson Les Paul, modified more than Donald Trump’s hairline), and reviewing the set list. Tossing it aside dismissively, he slams a lingering G chord, leaving the whole audience wondering if he is about to play THAT song, or if he was just checking his tuning. “Look out mama, there's a white boat comin’ up the river”- these words send the audience into a frenzy, for we realize that Neil is indeed playing “Powderfinger”, a song ripe with imagery, telling the story of a 22 year old man/boy (it's difficult to decide which he is) facing an existential crisis in the face of an approaching gunboat. Unable to cope with decision, he is mercilessly mowed down. The final verse is “22”’s final posthumous monologue, leaving the listener with a cryptic lesson, one that is much debated to this day. “Powderfinger” is possibly Neil’s finest song, and to finally hear it live was exhilarating. It was the opening track to the electric side of Young’s landmark 1979 album “Rust Never Sleeps”, and much to the audience’s surprise, Neil+POTR immediately launched into the next song on the album, “Welfare Mothers”. Seeing it's live debut with this band, the song bristles with a raw energy, matching it's purposefully detestable lyrics, documenting the fall of the free love movement. Next, Neil visits his 1969 breakout album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” with tracks “Cowgirl In The Sand” and the title track. “Cowgirl”, presented here as a 10 minute tour de force of soloing, showcased the chops of both Neil and Lukas, but in my opinion it lacked the energy that the studio version is known for. “Everybody Knows”, on the other hand, had improved markedly since the last time I saw it. The once seemingly scrambled harmony vocals now shone with a vibe faithful to the album. Neil’s next jam took the form of a 17 minute “Cortez The Killer”, which brandished all of the sublime energy the original was best known for. Much to my surprise, Neil kept the crushing force going with the self deprecating “Fuckin’ Up”, a savage deconstruction of the self found on 1990’s “Ragged Glory”. Promise of the Real handles the track with a sludgy finesse that perfectly emulates that of Young’s other major backing band, Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse gave Neil the room to breathe and solo freely, and while the presence of 3 guitarists originally put a strain on Neil, POTR have since worked out a perfect balance to give Neil all of the room he needs. After multiple false endings, we are treated to a stellar version of “Rockin’ In The Free World”, complete with a number of false endings as well, kicking back into the chorus as soon as you are sure the song has concluded. It was noticeable that Neil chose to shoehorn in an extra verse regarding America’s corporations, but it was understandable. The man held off from playing any Monsanto material, he has to get his rocks off somehow. After all was sung and done, I was left deaf in my right ear and in a state of shell shock, leaving me with only the desire to pass out. And was it worth it.
In my opinion, Willie should have gone on before Neil, because it was obvious beforehand that Neil+POTR would be a complete showstopper. A good chunk of the audience was simply drained after the musical exorcism of before, and by the time “Whiskey River” began, I was half asleep. Now, for those who only listen to Willie’s studio records, you may be surprised by his condition live. I am NOT saying that Willie cannot sing anymore. As a matter of fact, he sounded great, a notable improvement over some already great concerts of the past few years. The key to enjoying finely aged Willie live is to get used to the lower register of his current voice. Willie’s lower, perhaps even more aggressive vocals on “Whiskey River” lent it a new, more malevolent air. Among some of the notable performances of the set, Willie covered Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman”, and performed the standards “Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”, “On The Road Again”, and “Always On My Mind”, all sounding faithful to this fan. I was especially excited when Willie and his band (which I should mention, included Lukas and Micah, father and sons) played a three song block of Hank Williams covers (one of my favorite country artists), containing “Jambalaya”, “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Move It On Over”. Later, Willie revisits 2015’s “Django and Jimmie” with “It's All Going To Pot”. It's a shame that Merle Haggard was unable to rejoin Willie on stage. Finally, the set is finished off with the tongue in cheek “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”, encapsulating much of what many Americans know Willie for. Apparently, one more song was performed, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”, but I had left by then, knowing I would pass out from fatigue if I stayed any longer. While I was a bit disappointed that we did not hear any Ray Price covers (considering that the cover album “For The Good Times” was released on September 16th), I can say that all in all, Willie Nelson live was exactly what I expected: a laid back, enjoyable journey through a collection of originals and covers alike, new and old, all done in that familiar style that only the Red Headed Stranger himself can pull off. The 2016 Outlaw Music Festival in Scranton was a success in more than one way. While it not only managed to provide a location with fine acoustics and a nice schedule of musicians to enjoy throughout the day, it also succeeded in that the general public was introduced to a new swath of musicians, pushing boundaries in their own ways, be it Willie Nelson redefining country music, Neil Young genre hopping ceaselessly, or Cabinet, with their strange mix of traditional and experimental genres. These folks are true outlaws, where this festival undoubtedly gets its name. Perhaps with time and promotion, this could even become the next Farm Aid. Regardless of popularity, I look forward to hearing the lineup of Outlaw Music Festival 2017.