Though he’s absolutely earned the right, Willie Nelson probably shouldn’t follow Van Morrison and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, particularly on a rain-plagued evening. But Nelson did just that in Hershey, taking the stage in a steady rain just before 10 p.m. to close out the latest iteration of his Outlaw Music Festival in front of a massive Texas state flag. Though he played and sang well, Nelson, 85, seemed tired as he ran through a truncated, 65-minute version of his standard set with a band that included sons Lukas (guitar/vocals) and Micah (percussion), both of whom had played early slots backed by Promise of the Real.
Opening with “Whiskey River” and closing with Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi augmenting his Family band, Nelson proved his still-supple chops as he took Trigger on a ride through Django Reinhardt’s instrumental “Nuages,” and tossed gorgeous fills in to “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground,” even as he struggled with the lyrics to the latter.
Higher in the mix and busier than usual, pianist “Little Sister” Bobbie Nelson, who at 87, is two years her brother’s senior, played not only her usual showcase of “Down Yonder,” but also took over for “Twelth Street Rag” while Nelson briefly doffed his Willie’s Reserve sweatshirt before putting it right back on. Lukas served as bandleader for “Texas Flood” and the elder Nelson mocked his advacing years with “Roll Me up and Smoke me When I Die” and “I Woke up Still Not Dead Again Today,” reminding his adoring fans to take every Willie Nelson show not for granted, but as a gift.
He followed an uncharacteristically jovial Van Morrison, who, dressed in his trademark dark suit, fedora and shades – even though it was mostly dark when he took the stage in a light drizzle – visited many corners of his storied songbook in a generous, 90-minute set.
Backed by an eight-piece band that included peerless players on percussion; drums; backing vocals; violin; nylon-string acoustic guitar; electric and pedal-steel guitar; bass; and keys and trumpet; Morrison joined the ensemble on hollow-bodied electric guitar, sax and blues harp. Fully engaged, he cued the band with his right hard, yodeled, growled, cracked himself and his band up on “Broken Record” and threw them a couple of curve balls by calling out “Carrying a Torch,” “Wonderful Remark” and “Warm Love” on the fly.
They’re super-tight and had no problems tackling the audibles.
The 20 tracks bled into one another as Morrison and the band played jazz on Mose Allison’s “Benediction,” country on Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” soul on “Here Comes the Night” and more jazz on a sped-up, horn-driven take on “Moondance,” a fantabulous choice on a cloud-covered night where the moon was simply a rumor.
Morrison walked off the stage following “Did Ye Get Healed,” the band vamping and the music director calling for applause and bellowing his boss’ name again and again. The show seemed over, but the man returned for a rearranged and newly jazzed-up version of “Brown Eyed Girl” and Them’s “Gloria,” which smoked, and Morrison’s segment ended for real.
Making their Outlaw debut, the 12-piece Tedeschi Trucks band slayed the smallish audience in the cavernous stadium as Trucks and Tedeschi traded searing guitar solos, Tedeschi and the group’s trio of backing vocalists sang to the heavens and the group’s three-piece rhythm and horn sections goosed the music along like a runaway train that somehow maintained control.
Tedeschi had the crowd eating out of her hand on a red-hot reading B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get?;” Trucks showed why he’s a slide-guitar master on “Down in the Flood,” which along with a mournful “Going Gone Gone” was one of two Bob Dylan songs to pop up during the 90-minute set; and the whole house sang along to “Night Time is the Right Time” in the grey light of the overcast late afternoon.
Originals such as “Midnight in Harlem,” “Let Me Get By” and “Don’t Know What it Means” found the group channeling its influences while being uniquely original. Tedeschi Trucks Band is one of those ensembles that makes room for every one of its dozen players without sounding like it’s making room and that never fails to be anything less than staggeringly good.
This day was no exception, which was a good thing as they had to follow Sturgill Simpson. The guitarist played a jaw-dropping, 80-minute concert that was boiling stew of blues-based rock with the faintest hint of outlaw spice.
With a baritone that recalls Waylon Jennings and a playing style that follows the arc from Jimmy Page to Trey Anastasio, Simpson is a low-key stage presence who lets his guitar do the talking as he turns to his amps to coax feedback and walks bandstand letting inspiration pour through his fingers. When the quartet kicked into a blistering version of the Jeff Beck Group’s arrangement of “Going Down” late in the set, everything about Simpson came into focus and the relative newcomer – who has three LPs under his belt – surely made a bunch of new fans.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real played an all-too-short, 40-minute set of material from their eponymous 2017 LP and the just-released EP that earned them a well-deserved standing ovation. With Micah Nelson on guitar and percussion, Lukas performed tracks such as “Turn off the News,” “Die Alone” and “Forget About Georgia,” which was extended to show off the rhythm section at the expense of his own guitar solo.
This was rememdied on the climax, when Nelson, sporting a Jimi Hendrix T, played with his teeth and jumped off the drum riser in a swell combination of showmanship and musicianship.
The Particle Kid, aka Micah Nelson, opened the eight-hour marathon with 30-minute set that concluded with “Everything is Bullshit,” which featured big brother Lukas on air guitar and vocals and, as Micah played a grungy, stabbing guitar solo, illustrated why Neil Young tapped POTR to be his latest backing band.
The opening set began 15 minutes before the scheduled 2:45 p.m.start time and set the tone for a well-oiled festival that ran right on schedule for the entire day, with 20- to 30-minute gaps between artists. It proved that even stoners can be on time when they set their minds to it.