Outlaw Music Festival

Sunday Sept 9th, Budweiser Stage, Toronto

With: Willie Nelson, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sturgill Simpson, and Terra Lightfoot.

By Jacqueline Howell, Photos by Dave MacIntyre

A full roster of a one-day music festival is slightly less full today as there are a couple of line up cancellations in the form of Willie Nelson’s two sons: Particle Kid (Micah Nelson) and Lukas Nelson + Promise of the Real, who elsewhere serves as Neil Young’s band (and are incredible.)

There’s some disappointment expressed by eager fans. Country music fans really know their artists, and many, who travel from far beyond the GTA for such an event, are here for all of it. Committed, loyal. These are becoming throwback values. The loss tonight becomes a different kind of benefit, perhaps, as Sturgill Simpson and Tedeschi Truck band both add layers and embellishments to their sets that make any quibbles go away. These artists are immersive and diverse and can roll with changes. A lot like the man at the head of this thing, the legendary Willie Nelson.

There’s no escaping for my generation that it’s a time for seeing legends and favourites while we can, and we are extraordinarily lucky to be able to see Willie perform at the age of 85, here at the best larger venue in town. The line up for Outlaw is well-thought out, even though different than the U.S. leg (which includes Van Morrison.)

Sturgill Simpson is here to stay. He’s a dynamic, fresh country and roots music player and delivers a stellar set which shows off his formidable range as a musician. Simpson, who has been correctly compared to Waylon Jennings, is regular fixture on the live music scene, and a highly memorable one.

A friendly couple sitting next to me gives me the rundown on Tedeschi Trucks Band which adds to the enjoyment of the exciting road show they bring. Working musicians with their own bands, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi met and decided to marry and form a band together. They weren’t going to fire anyone as part of this union, so they told all the members of both of their bands that they could stay on if they wanted to. The result is spectacular rather than cluttered: two well-oiled machines multiplies into an ever-growing system of musical life. There are fourteen people on stage wearing their talent with ease. Two drummers. A horn section. So many singers that take a moment to shine over the course of the show that it’s astounding, each different than the last, enhancing and playing off Tedeschi’s own honeyed, honest one. There is room for everyone, a real family, the ones some of us only dream of.

TTB, in demand all summer as the word has spread across North America about their three records and their live show, play for us a new song they’ve been breaking in on the road, called “Shame”. Here, shame, that heaviest of words, is taken out, faced, allowed to get air, attacked and conquered. It is revelatory. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard, and as a writer who happens to be immersed in the sticky work of delivering a first book of personal coming-of-age writing, I’ve spent a lot of time with that word. The catharsis is real. Derek Trucks, a prodigious guitar player who cut his teeth with The Allman brothers (where his late uncle, Butch, a founding member, played drums) is astounding to watch, and the quiet, palpable chemistry between Derek and Susan as they play together or stand back to appreciate each other’s artistry is the most romantic thing I’ve seen in years. Obviously, my photographer and I are now fans for life.

Who but an icon could follow what we’ve just seen?

Willie Nelson takes the stage as darkness falls, and our eyes cannot believe it. It is surreal to see a figure you’ve looked at on record covers since childhood, that we associate with parents and grandparents, the old eras of sugarplum Christmases and memories of loved ones passed. He’s got Trigger, his fixture of a guitar, and we can see it’s worn through with love and untold strums and miles. The sight alone is enough to rock all of us who are first timers. Nelson had been quite ill earlier in the year, bouncing back, as reported by his family, once he had some rest in the dry heat, his wellness affirmed by the sounds of him picking up his guitar again. In short order, Willie Nelson throws his cowboy hat and a bandanna to the crowd and sheds his sweatshirt for a basic tour T-shirt, at his age, on a cold, windy waterfront, outdoor stage, because he’s an effortless bad-ass and always will be. He’s wiry, strong, and feels permanent. He is as he’s always been, seeming as if he’s among the last of something we’ll always need: braided, smiling, earthy, cool.

Nelson, who needs to thank nobody, gives a nod to Hank Williams with the classic “Jambalya (On the Bayou)” and his great friend Waylon Jennings with “Good Hearted Woman”. His own brand of outlaw-activism (and his continued cool with the youngsters) is represented by his lively songs “It’s All Going to Pot” (which is a song he originally did with the late great Merle Haggard) and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” which is good fun and a pretty great idea.

“Little Sister” Bobbie, who plays a mean piano, may be little, but she’s Nelson’s older sister at 87 years young. She’s been with Willie Nelson’s band, Family, since 1973 and has had a storied career in her own right. The audience is told that Bobbie Nelson has recently been inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.

Willie Nelson’s band is that current day mix of family and younger guys who bring some new energy to the set up. They follow his lead as he meanders like a story teller, in and out of songs that he can blend together in his unique way. It is humbling to see the man who wrote Patsy Cline’s signature hit sing “Crazy”. It is awe-inspiring to hear the much covered, perfect, “You Were Always On My Mind”, a song most closely associated with Elvis, who we lost in 1977, be sung by the man who originated it, for us, tonight. Tears are shed, again. Tears for the lost, tears for the living, tears of gratitude. Here is a crowd not afraid of a little wild weather, behind us, a row of four elderly folks, each with canes, who are more connected to their music than most 30 year olds of today are or ever will be. There’s time for a tear for whatever will be for music, when we lose the last of the legends who are irreplaceable, who have few challengers with the stamina, talent and grit to do the leg work anymore. But we’ve seen some of them tonight. So we cheer and leave it at that.