At 89, country music legend Willie Nelson’s well of creativity is still full with new songs, as well as continued performances for old and new fans throughout the country. This was evident on September 11 when he brought his Willie Nelson and Family Outlaw Music Festival to Virginia Beach, Virginia. His outlaw gang included a varied and stellar mix of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Billy Strings, Larkin Poe, and Brittany Spencer.
With one foot in Austin and the other in the universe, Willie Nelson’s performances are seated these days, and the pace more measured. There is the impression that Willie is sharing favorite songs on the front porch with old friends. His wide, electric grin illuminates the spoken space between songs. “Waylon and I were talkin’ one day, and we came up with this song,” he said, then began the lonesome tenor strains of “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,” pointing his long, thin arm toward the audience bidding them to join in. Some new songs he’s written, including duets with sons Lukas and Micah, are wistful but bright looks back and forward from a wealth of experiences. However, one new song Nelson sang at the show, “I Never Cared for You,” was one rich with heartbreak and nuance, the tingle and thrill of his well-known voice worn but familiar and strong.
Other songs included a majority of tunes he undoubtedly included to please fans wanting to hear his best-loved songs for the first time or yet again. These famed tunes spanned “Whiskey River,” his first number, to “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” and “Angel Flying to Close to the Ground.” Seated close by him and a few inches behind, his son Micah harmonized with Willie and performed songs of his own. Micah told the crowd how his dad had said during endless games of dominoes, “if I die when I’m high, I’ll be halfway to heaven,” and Micah told him that would make a great song title. And so, Nelson told him, “Then why don’t you go ahead and write it.” Micah then launched into the joyous song he had then written, with a lyric much like it might have been crafted by his dad.”
Micah sang another of his own songs, with the malodorous, surprising title, “Life is Bullshit.” Not likely to top Billboard charts, it’s a surprisingly interesting, if somewhat complex song, following the formation of a mushroom atop a mound of bullshit on a journey to a later-emerging “tiny” ego and human development and on to a seemingly slightly encouraging endnote. Willie stared intently at Micah throughout the number and added some high notes on the “Life is Bullshit” chorus. Micah goes professionally by the name The Particle Kid and is also an artist, cartoonist, and painted hempcrete (a marijuana binder) bowl maker. Nelson was joined by Billy English on stand-up snare drum and Kevin Smith on double bass. Mickey Raphael joined in on mouth harp, as he did on Nathaniel Rateliff’s earlier performance.
At an early moment in the performance, Nelson paused a space between songs, perhaps taking a quick breath, and the entire crowd, amphitheater to lawn, rose for a standing ovation. He responded with the same shining, wide, electric grin. One family had brought “Thank you Willie” stickers to share with neighboring fans.
Immediately preceding him was an especially powerful set by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Starting with “Look It Here” and “You Worry Me,” the show built in intensity. While Rateliff is capable of some hilarious videos, the set was straight ahead and intense, with Rateliff dropping to his knees a couple of times to belt out the climax of a chorus. A highlight was a trio of horns capturing the crowd in a few moments of silent entrancement. The Night Sweats are a tight band. The lighting was electric and added to the atmosphere created in the sound. And Rateliff himself was an embodiment of energy, a machine powering through ten songs leading to the final act, Willie Nelson. One of his most joyous and compelling songs, “And it’s Still Alright,” came next to the last, leading to the strong ending of “Hey Mama.”
The last time Rateliff played the Hampton Roads area was perhaps down the road in Norfolk long ago when he played as a virtually-unknown, last-minute solo warm-up act in the progressive Discovery series of indy rock, roots, and blues music at Norfolk’s historic Attucks Theater. Now, he has returned with a solid reputation in the country rock pantheon.
There were undoubtedly many Billy Strings fans in the Outlaw Tour audience, as the 29-year old has continued from his prodigy status to a seasoned professional not yet reaching 30. Strings, whose given name is William Apostol and has survived a tough life already, has many fans drawn both to his shredding guitar work on acoustic or electric guitars and his traditional bluegrass instrumentation and vocals, including a strong repertoire of his own songs. One resounding tune in what he called the “bluegrass part of the show” was “Blue Virginia Blues,“ which brought an enthusiastic response from the largely Virginian crowd. They also did a white-hot cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.”
Strings’ picking was spectacular as always, and his strong young, stony-edged voice carried through the narrative power of ballads such as “Watch It Fall” as well. He was joined by a singularly-solid band as he powered through a 12-song set. At one point, he paused to tie a red bandanna around his head a la Willie Nelson to the obvious amusement of the crowd. “I love it each night,” Strings said, “when Willie takes the stage and things come to a quick calm.” It was an all-acoustic set, and his picking partners included stalwarts Billy Failing (banjo), Jarrod Walker (mandolin), and Royal Masat (bass), joined by Alex Hargreaves on fiddle
Before Billy Strings, the electric rock duo, with rootsy, blues elements, Larkin Poe, took the stage. Sisters Rebecca Lovell on vocals and electric guitar, and Megan, on lapsteel electric guitar and harmony vocals, are a two-woman powerhouse. Rebecca has an especially strong, ranging, and powerful voice, that can be very bluesy. The band’s set included the distinctive original “She’s a Self-Made Man” and the crowd-appropriate “Blue Ridge Mountains,” along with their seminal and autobiographical “Georgia Off My Mind,” about leaving Georgia for Nashville. The sisters told the crowd they should be sure to check out the extraordinary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose “Bad Spell” they included in the set, with their interpretation of his classic rock-blues number. The band, named after one of their great-great (etc.) grandfathers, are also descendants of author Edgar Allen Poe, who hailed from nearby Baltimore, and carry some of his dark edges in their seamless blend of electric riffs. Larkin Poe developed from an earlier group, The Lovell Sisters, that included a third sister, Jessica. That band’s repertoire also included folk and even some classical touches.
Opening the show was Brittney Spencer doing a blend of sparkle and heartbreak. Spencer has been making the country scene as one of several black singers breaking the country race barrier. Spencer has said that she has paid some heavy dues in the process with as she’s called a dual obstacle of her race and that she is considered overweight, another no-no. She wrote of that struggle in her song, “Sober and Skinny,” that she performed that night. You wouldn’t know it though, as she propelled herself through songs representing a range of early and hard-won experience and wisdom. Other original and with-an-edge songs included “Damn Right, You’re wrong,” and she finished with a bright cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,” another fitting tune.
The tour’s promoter told us that the tour will be back next year as strong as ever. Long live Willie Nelson!