Live Review: Outlaw Music Festival in Charlotte

The Outlaw Music Festival stop in Charlotte included some surprising changes both prior and during the event…

Initially advertised as a Willie Nelson headlining festival featuring star power from top to bottom, the Outlaw Music Festival in Charlotte underwent quite a transformation prior to kickoff. Two artists, Brandi Carlile and Elvis Costello withdrew their names from the bill before the scheduled date leaving Blackbird Presents, the production company responsible for the event, with a few absent time slots to fill.

Just a few days prior to the show it was announced that start times had been delayed, presumably due to the shuffling of artists and bands which were scheduled to perform. Finally, it was announced that Mitchell Lee would get things started at 4:10pm, almost an hour and a half later than the originally published time to begin.

While the top of the bill changed, any event anchored by Old Crow Medicine Show, Sturgill Simpson and Willie Nelson wasn’t going to disappoint. After Lee, a band on the rise, The Wild Feathers, took to the stage and made the most of their opportunity – being a late addition to the ticket.

Old Crow Medicine Show

As 6:30pm rolled around, OCMS took over with an impressive and energetic set which raised the bar and took the event to an entirely different level. Their shear range of musical talent was spectacular as members switched from guitar, to drums, keys, fiddle, bass, and even an accordion – self described by Ketch Secor as a “squeeze box”.

The band was joined on stage by world renowned musician Mickey Raphael, best known for his harmonica playing alongside Willie Nelson, for a Nelson cover and then their own hit song, Wagon Wheel.

Sturgill Simpson

Next up was Sturgill Simpson and his commitment to letting the music speak for itself continues. There were no bright flashing lights, smoke machines or anything else on stage to distract from the musical experience about to take place.

Just Simpson, who stood side stage as opposed to front and center, and his band composed of drummer Miles Miller, bassist Chuck Bartels and Bobby Emmett on the keys.

A highlight of the evening was when Simpson addressed the audience with 20-plus minutes remaining in his set. He said it was enough time for three to four more songs or two really good ones. Immediately, it was decided on two really good ones and Simpson proceeded to play essentially non-stop to complete the set with a small break between songs and bits and pieces of a few others. His guitar skill on full display, it was a memorable moment that would soon be unfortunately overshadowed by what was about to happen.

Willie Nelson

Scheduled to take the stage at 9:40pm, Nelson entered just a few minutes late with his band. He walked toward Trigger (his famous guitar) and immediately picked up and put down his signature red, white and blue guitar strap. Following, he circled the stage and exited.

Initial thoughts were that something had not been set up properly or he had forgotten something backstage. However, as time passed the eery feeling something was wrong crept over the crowd. Eventually, Nelson would return to a huge ovation.

This time, he managed to pick up Trigger but replaced it on the stand before angrily removing his hat, tossing it to the crowd and exiting again. Time passed and as the 11:00pm curfew drew close, it was finally announced that the show had been cancelled with an official announcement of Nelson being “under the weather”.

The reactions of those both in attendance and on social media varied considerably. People demanded refunds (patrons were told to keep their tickets) and resorted to name-calling while others defended the legend.

Willie Nelson is 85 years old and we should be appreciative that he remains committed to touring and allowing new generations to experience his expertise. It was disappointing to not hear the first notes of Whiskey River or any other hits but his health is the ultimate concern and there is no shame in Nelson electing to not put himself into a dangerous situation.

Nelson performed his scheduled show on Sunday night in Washington D.C. at an indoor venue as the Charlotte weather could have definitely played a factor in the cancellation. Reports were Nelson was having a hard time catching his breath at the Raleigh show on Friday night and it was extremely humid on Saturday (Simpson commented on the humidity playing a factor in tuning his guitar all set).

While there will likely never be an exact reason given for the abrupt departure – speculation has ranged from being disappointed with the crowd, lineup and other factors – the good news is that Nelson was able to put on a show the following night and may return to make amends in Charlotte at some point in the future.