Willie and His Outlaws Come Out to Play: Sometimes the stars just align. A Saturday evening fall country concert in Orange County when a pandemic is ongoing could raise a few eyebrows. But it was outdoors, the venue/promotors took all necessary precautions, the crowd was smart enough to do all the right things, and the weather was perfect.

Living country legend Willie Nelson‘s regular Outlaw Festival returned to Southern California with a stellar bill at Irvine’s FivePoint Amphitheatre. It’s a strange venue in many ways — as somebody sat near us noted, it kinda looks like somebody dropped a stage and some seating into the middle of an aircraft hanger. But it’s also a very relaxed place. Friendly and helpful staff, some wonderfully unusual food trucks, well organized parking — they’ve got it all down.

Not many people had arrived by the time married British Americana duo IDA MAE took the stage, which is a shame because their garage-y country-rock racket is glorious. A couple of years ago, they told this writer that: “We sat down and recorded the record exactly how we wanted. We recorded most of it live, straight to tape and we tracked most of it in three or four tapes.” Their sound reflects this — simultaneously haphazard and deliberate. And brilliant.

Lucinda Williams reminded us from the stage that she had a stroke a year ago, which is why she was seated for this performance. It also explains the occasional stutter when she couldn’t read the teleprompter and her growing frustration with herself. But the human spirit is an incredible thing and, with the help of a crowd that cheered her every word and some brilliant musicians alongside her, she was able to put in a heartfelt and genuinely moving performance.

Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule (plus the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead) was greeted like a returning hero and, damn, the Mule was great. Honestly, this writer isn’t massively familiar with their jam band take on southern rock. On paper, that doesn’t sound massively exciting. But the feel that Haynes and his band put into every note, every section, even the elongated ones, is spellbinding. Color us converted.

Ditto the Avett Brothers. Clearly, they’re massively popular but they were new to this writer and, again, we were mighty impressed. Gospel meets bluegrass meets indie rock meets folk meets country, and it all slots together seamlessly. The lyrical content, which seems to awkwardly touch on parental issues between the brothers, is deliciously dark, and the songs soar.

Of course, it all sort of paled when the great Willie Nelson took the stage. Much like when we saw Stevie Wonder at the Global Citizen event a couple of weeks ago, some artists simply transcend their genre. Nelson sat down next to his son Micah, beat up guitar in hand, and rolled through a set that ran through his career, taking in some fun covers along the way.

“Whiskey River,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Crazy,” “Good Hearted Woman” and of course “On the Road Again” and “Always On My Mind” — it all sounded incredible. Micah’s own Particle Kid song “Everything is Bullshit” was sung heartily by the crowd, we got renditions of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” and then it was done.

Until next time.








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