Scott Kucharski

REVIEW/PHOTOS: Willie Nelson’s Outlaw friends fire up festival fans at Bethel Woods

REVIEW/PHOTOS: Willie Nelson’s Outlaw friends fire up festival fans at Bethel Woods
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Willie Nelson and his annual Outlaw Music Festival came to the beautiful grounds of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York on Saturday, July 29. The 2023 tour is the largest iteration of the longtime festival that celebrates the legendary American icon. The festival originally debuted in Scranton as a one-off event at The Pavilion at Montage Mountain with performances by Willie Nelson & Family, Neil Young & Promise of the Real, Sheryl Crow, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lee Ann Womack, and local favorites Cabinet before it became a traveling tour.

This year’s show features a rotating lineup of legendary performers, along with some up-and-comers depending on the date and venue. Artists currently coming along to celebrate the 90th birthday of the man known to most simply as “Willie” include Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros. featuring The Wolfpack, The Avett Brothers, John Fogerty, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Whiskey Myers, Gov’t Mule, Marcus King, Margo Price, The String Cheese Incident, Trampled by Turtles, Los Lobos, Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs, Kathleen Edwards, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Flatland Cavalry, Elizabeth Cook, Kurt Vile and The Violators, Brittney Spencer, Particle Kid, Myron Elkins and, of course, Willie Nelson & Family.

On this night, Willie’s son Micah (a.k.a. Particle Kid) opened the fest with a solo set of his unique songwriting and space-age style.

Canadian singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards was next up and started her set just before the skies turned dark and opened up into a full-blown downpour. Edwards, quoting someone from backstage, said she was the prettiest girl on the bill that night, which drew a round of applause and laughter from the crowd. As the rain drenched the grounds and those on the lawn and at concessions, Edwards and her band continued to keep everyone in “high spirits” despite the elements, even telling listeners that this weather was still better than those months called December, January, and February. Her band and storytelling songs were a great fit and perfect bridge between Particle Kid and the next act, Gov’t Mule.

Led by legendary guitarist Warren Haynes, Gov’t Mule took the stage as the skies cleared up and fans began to move back out onto the lawn to enjoy the music on what turned out to be a beautiful summer night in the mountains of Bethel Woods. During their 10 songs, they were joined by Jackie Greene for a rousing rendition of the Allman Brothers Band classic “Melissa.” The band then closed out their set with another Allman classic, “Soulshine.” As night fell over the pavilion and lawn, Colorado-based singer/songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff and his bandmates, known as the Night Sweats, took over and had the crowd dancing and singing along to the majority of their 22 songs. The huge set was considered by some in attendance to be the highlight of the night as they enjoyed hits like “I Need Never Get Old,” “You Worry Me,” “S.O.B.,” and others, including a smoking rendition of Leon Russell’s “Tight Rope.” Rateliff and his bandmates lived up to their name as attendees got their clothes wet all over again while working up a sweat just trying to keep up.

Coming off the “high” that was Nathaniel Rateliff’s set, fans were immediately lifted back to their feet as Nelson took the stage for his headlining set with Micah and a minimalist backing band featuring only an upright bass, drums, and harmonica. Willie and Particle Kid sat in chairs sipping from Willie’s Reserve mugs at the front of the stage, which featured a huge American flag as its backdrop in a scene that felt like watching them perform on their front porch on a random Saturday night in Texas.

Opening his 20-song set with his 1973 cover of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” from his album “Shotgun Willie,” the American Outlaw had the crowd smiling from ear-to-ear as everyone seemed to marvel and relish in the fact that they were still able to see and hear their beloved Willie sing coming off the heels of his recent 90th birthday.

They were treated to outlaw county anthems “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “On the Road Again,” “You Were Always on My Mind,” and “Georgia (On My Mind),” as well as “Everything Is Bullshit,” a Particle Kid cover, and sit-ins by Rateliff and Haynes on “I’ll Fly Away” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” respectively, leaving people in awe during the experience. The highlight for this writer was a song called “Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven).”

As they sat in their chairs in front of the massive stars and stripes, Micah recounted a story where he and his dad “were playing dominos one night and he said to me, ‘Son, if I die when I’m high, I just want you to know, I’ll be halfway to heaven.'” Immediately realizing the poignance of this sentiment, he suggested that Willie needed to write that song. Willie, in Micah’s words, said, “I’m too old – you write it,” so he did, and it was beautiful. So was this night, this venue, and the music that filled the air on a summer night near the sacred grounds that hosted Woodstock.

Those who have the opportunity to catch the Outlaw Music Festival before its 2023 run ends should not miss it, as it is guaranteed to be the high(light) of the summer. It stops at Hersheypark Stadium (100 Hersheypark Dr., Hershey) this Friday, Aug. 4, TD Pavilion at The Mann Center (5201 Parkside Ave., Philadelphia) on Saturday, Aug. 5, and PNC Bank Arts Center (116 Garden State Parkway, Holmdel, NJ) on Sunday, Aug. 6.