Willie Nelson had a really good Sunday night in Columbus.
Closing his Outlaw Music Festival stop inside Nationwide Arena shortly before 11 p.m., Nelson and his band – aptly named Family – were joined by members of Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers and others who’d played before to sing along on the usual set-closing twofer of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.” But when the joyous spiritual numbers ended and the guests dashed off stage, Nelson surprised everyone by saying he had a request to fill and played “Georgia on My Mind.” He followed that with “Roll Me up and Smoke Me When I Die” and then reprised “Circle”->“Away” before walking off as the Family vamped in front of a huge American flag that fell over the Texan banner that had been there the entire set.
With son Lukas in Europe promoting the new Promise of the Real LP and backing Neil Young on select dates, Nelson was left to play all the guitar parts himself and he and Trigger stepped up with nuanced solos on Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man” and Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages.” Nelson also mixed up his usual setlist – which still included “Whiskey River,” “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind” (but not “Crazy” or “Nightlife”) – by tossing in three tracks from the just-released Ride Me Back Home including Guy Clark’s tender “My Favorite Picture of You” and Mac Davis’ irreverent “It’s Hard to be Humble.”
Nelson is 86, pianist and “Little Sister” Bobbie – who, as always, shone on “Down Yonder” – is 88 and drummer Paul English has been playing with Nelson since 1955, so it’s understandable that some nights may be better than others. On Sunday, Nelson – in good voice and full of pep as he whipped red bandanas into the first few rows – and his crew packed more than 20 songs into an energetic, 65-minute set that was as good as anyone seeing him in 2019 and beyond should be lucky to experience.
The Avett Brothers immediately preceded the headliner with an infectious, 70-minute performance that featured OCMS’ Ketch Secor on fiddle for the whole shebang and a guest appearance from Nelson’s harp man extraordinaire Mickey Raphael on “The Race is On.” As is usually the case with this group of musicians, the set spanned genres and subject matter from the outlandish rock ‘n’ roll of “Satan Pulls the Strings” to the drums-and-bass celebration of self-worth, “Ain’t No Man,“ to the modern spiritual that is “No Hard Feelings,” a track that most bands could build a career on.
But the Avett Brothers – who may be the only band that can head bang with banjo, upright bass, acoustic guitar and cello – have so much more to offer. And they did as Seth and Scott and bassist Bob Crawford slowed things down to sing “I Wish I Was” acoustically around a single mic before leaving Scott for a solo-acoustic rendition of “Murder in the City,” no small feat to pull off in a 20,000-seat arena. Mostly, though, the band filled the cavernous space with an engaging – but not intrusive – light show, obvious onstage joy and interaction and blood-kin harmonies that combine in an eclectic mix of Americana that make this band among the best live bands in the country on any given night.
On this night, however, Alison Krauss stole the show with a 70-minute performance sandwiched between the Avetts and the Crows. Eschewing the Outlaw backdrop that adored the stage for most of the eight-hour gig, Krauss and her solo band – which includes Union Station’s Ron Block and Barry Bales – played before a streetscape and stuffed the concert with more genres than seemed possible from the balladic opening of Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain” to the a cappella gospel of “Down to the River to Pray” to the rockabilly of “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” to the torchy, vocal-jazz tip of the cowboy hat to Nelson that was “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground.”
Still possessing a voice that could make a financial statement sound stunning if sung, Krauss put it to work with a quick, voices-only reading of “Go to Sleep You Little Baby” and the Union Station favorite “Let Me Touch You for Awhile,” with Sidney Cox on Dobro. Little Milton’s “Let Your Loss be Your Lesson” featured stinging electric guitar, “Sawing on the Strings” gave the fiddler a chance to do just that and “When You Say Nothing at All” and “Ghost in this House” illustrated the ups and downs of romantic love with gorgeous clarity.
Krauss isn’t really what one things of when one thinks of Outlaws. But she ruled the makeshift jailhouse on Sunday in Columbus.
The only fault in Old Crow’s 5 p.m. showcase was the Medicine Men had only 45 minutes – the same amount of time inexplicably given to pop-country-rockers Dawes, who were simply dreadful in the 3:45 slot – to, as the opener said, “Raise a Ruckus,” in a searing concert as back-porch bonfire that found the group of multi-instrumentalist passing around instruments like the joints they sang about on the stoner spiritual “I Hope I’m Stoned (When Jesus Takes Me Home).” Raphael joined in on the fun for “City of New Orleans” and stuck around when Scott Avett came on to add banjo and trade verses with Secor – who played fiddle, harp and guitar – on the set-closing “Wagon Wheel,” that made it impossible to believe it was still Sunday afternoon everywhere but inside the arena, where it felt like 11 p.m. in the hills of Tennessee.