Live Review: Outlaw Music Festival in Charlotte 2.0

The Outlaw Music Festival returned to Charlotte with a revamped lineup for a midweek show…

When Willie Nelson walked off the stage in Charlotte just a few weeks ago it left fans feeling a variety of mixed emotions. Some were angry, others disappointed and everyone confused about what exactly was taking place behind the scenes. Nelson had sauntered into view not once, but twice, picking up his guitar and then lowering it again without playing a single note. After a second departure, the show was officially cancelled.

Days later he announced a future return and about a week following the June 20 date became official. Initially it appeared Nelson would again be joined by Sturgill Simpson, who performed originally, but the concert was removed from his tour website just days after being published.

It was obvious Nelson would bring back one or two acts and eventually the pieces fell into place for what transpired to be an amazing lineup. Essentially, those with an original ticket got to see Mitchell Lee, The Wild Feathers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Sturgill Simpson and each of the following, including Willie Nelson all under one bill – well worth making a return trip to Charlotte from about anywhere.

SArah shook and the disarmers

The Chapel Hill based Sarah Shook and the Disarmers returned from a tour of Denmark and Sweden just in time for the Outlaw Music Festival and it was a perfect match. Shook captivated an early arriving audience with a few songs off her latest album, Years, which was named one of the best from the first half of 2018 by Rolling Stone and Wide Open Country.

Sometimes the jump from local bars and other familiar venues to a nearly 20,000 seat stadium or amphitheater can be intimidating but Shook’s confidence and sound translated well to the festival crowd on hand. Many in attendance were even chanting for an encore performance following her set, the first of what would be an incredible evening of live music in the Queen City.

jamey johnson

Alabama native Jamey Johnson was next to take the stage and his stripped down set was especially entertaining. Johnson proved he needs only a guitar and his sonorous southern drawl in order to receive standing ovations from any crowd. Electing to never play from a set list, Johnson is free to perform whatever he pleases which included some covers and a few original hits.

The first to make reference of Willie missing his original show, Johnson jokingly commented that he had never known the great one to not perform when scheduled but that it was “still hot” – in reference to the heat and humidity blanketing Charlotte.

Many on hand would have also elected to have Johnson continue singing his songs, but the tight schedule didn’t allow for much wiggle room and his nearly hour long set passed quickly.

the avett brothers

The night’s next performers were a crowd favorite. Hailing from Concord, just a few miles northeast of PNC Music Pavilion, The Avett Brothers joked they could have walked. A draw for many in attendance, the group didn’t disappoint with many up tempo originals and a one special cover.

In tribute to Merle Haggard, the band was joined on stage by Mickey Raphael, playing harmonica, for a stirring rendition of ‘Mama Tried’ much to the crowd’s delight. Both Seth and Scott Avett took turns leading everyone along a musical journey during their 12-song set which featured hits from throughout the groups career.

From ‘Satan Pulls the Strings‘ (2016) to ‘At the Beach‘ (2004) it was evident the band knew their home audience well, making the most of their time to perform and showing a true appreciation for those in attendance.

Willie Nelson

Such a diverse and impressive lineup could only be followed by a few artists in history and Willie Nelson provided that opportunity. His brief entry and exit back in May was entertaining, even without striking a chord and on Wednesday, Nelson appeared both healthy and excited to make his return a memorable one.

As a living legend, Nelson commands attention and was greeted with a thunderous ovation. He waved to the crowd, picked up Trigger (his guitar) and almost immediately struck the first notes of ‘Whiskey River‘ as he has done countless times before.

Always the first song of his set, Nelson continued putting out hit after hit with, ‘On the Road Again‘, ‘Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys‘, ‘Crazy‘, ‘Still Not Dead‘ and ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ Nelson even highlighted new music with, ‘Something You Get Through’ off his latest album – Last Man Standing.

Engaging the crowd from his entry and never looking back, Willie made only one brief quip about feeling as though “he had been here before”, attempting to make light of his previous departure.

He more than made up for an early exit previously and Blackbird Presents did an astounding job of piecing together an excellent lineup. A midweek date wasn’t ideal but any time spent seeing someone of Nelson’s status live is well worth the opportunity.

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.