by Julian Spivey
The annual Outlaw Music Festival presented by Blackbird Presents, established in 2016 bringing revolving acts in the country, rock and Americana genres typically culminating in a Willie Nelson concert to cities around the country, made a stop at Little Rock’s Verizon Arena on Friday, June 29 for a terrific afternoon and evening of music.
The acts joining Nelson at the Little Rock stop on Friday included Grammy-winner Sturgill Simpson, indie group The Head and the Heart, Texas country star Ryan Bingham and Willie’s two youngest sons Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real and Particle Kid (Micah Nelson).
Particle Kid began the day of music at 4:30 p.m. with an entertaining three-song set that began with “The Ocean.” Micah Nelson proved that talented musicianship and guitar playing certainly runs in the family. Lukas would show this off to great extent, as well, later. I particularly enjoyed Particle Kid’s performance of his “Gun Show Loophole Blues,” a protest song about gun control coming the day after yet another mass shooting in this country. He would finish his set with the fun “Everything is Bullshit,” which is also somewhat of a protest song lamenting stuff such as social media and drone use.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real would immediately join the stage following Micah’s performance with Micah playing in the band. Lukas and Promise of the Real certainly would prove themselves during their five-song set as one of the absolute best jam bands around today. The band started their set with “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” before going into the rocking “Entirely Different Stars.” The group’s performance of “Turn Off the News” was certainly a favorite among some in the crowd, which was still building and would continue to do so throughout the afternoon. My favorite performances from the group were the ballad “(Forget About) Georgia,” a lovely song about trying to forget a girl who happens to share the name of a song Lukas must play frequently in concert with his dad (“Georgia On My Mind”) and the set finishing “Find Yourself,” which was my favorite track off the band’s self-titled 2017 release. Lukas is an incredibly talented vocalist and guitarist with a bit more of a soulful, bluesy tinge to his voice than his father has, though still just as, if not even more nasally. It really makes for a unique combination.
With Arkansas not getting too many music festivals that tend to last a bulk of an afternoon and evening and being on a Friday where many were likely waiting for their work week to end before attending it was kind of disappointing to see the early turnout for some of these artists. I understand that people go to concerts to see artists they already know and like, but people please don’t sleep on opening acts. There are many artists I’ve come to enjoy by showing up for opening act performances. It almost makes me sad to know that so many in attendance for the later sets on Friday night missed the talents that are Lukas and Micah Nelson.
Ryan Bingham was next up on the Outlaw Music Festival stage and he’s an artist that I’ve been hopeful of seeing, even though admittedly I’m not all that familiar with his discography apart from two songs I absolutely love “The Weary Kind,” which appeared in the fantastic 2009 film “Crazy Heart” and won Bingham an Oscar for Best Original Song, and “Southside of Heaven.”
Bingham would perform both songs during his set. I’ve absolutely loved “The Weary Kind” ever since I first heard it in “Crazy Heart,” but Bingham had a different arrangement for it in concert and it wasn’t quite as great as the one I’m used to. With the original arrangement “The Weary Kind” is likely one of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time.
A couple of highlights from Bingham’s set were incredible covers of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with Bingham absolutely kicking ass on the vocals of “Whipping Post.” It’s interesting to me in these times we live in that Dylan’s iconic “Blowin’ in the Wind” is coming into relevance again, if it ever actually left. This was the second straight concert I’ve heard the song covered, with Old Crow Medicine Show doing it at their Little Rock show earlier in the month.
Bingham would also perform great versions of “Dollar a Day,” “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So” and “Hallelujah” during his set.
The strangest set of the night for me was The Head and the Heart, an indie folk band out of Seattle that frankly didn’t really seem to mesh with the rest of the artists on the Little Rock schedule and certainly don’t seem to have an “outlaw” vibe to them. The band is incredibly talented and performed some truly nice songs like “Let’s Be Still,” “Sounds Like Hallelujah” and “Down in the Valley,” but just gave a weird vibe to the whole show because it had the arena almost split from completely into it to didn’t really care for it. There were obviously some within the crowd who came primarily to see The Head and the Heart, but it left some of the more country audience kind of scratching their heads.
This would be an effect Sturgill Simpson would have on the crowd to a lesser extent next as he was frankly too loud and too much of a rock and roll star for some within the audience. The older lady sitting/standing next to my wife and I who was waiting to see Willie Nelson frankly had to leave and go outside during Simpson’s epic, guitar shredding set that would’ve torn the roof off the entire arena had it been an actual Sturgill Simpson show and not part of a multiple-artist festival. Those that knew Simpson’s music seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show – mostly people with floor seating – while those in the lower bowl kind of just sat there and acted like they hadn’t just had their ears completely rocked off their heads.
Simpson would perform a lot of songs from his 2016 Grammy winning Country Album of the Year, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but be sure that Simpson has developed into one of the best rock stars in this country. The songs from this album sound completely new with rocking arrangements where Simpson just absolutely lets go on electric guitar. There’s no horn section in the group anymore. The songs still sound great and if you’re wanting to jam you’re going to enjoy the new sound. Among the rocked-up versions of songs from that album on Friday night were “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” “All Around You,” “Breakers Roar,” “Keep It Between the Lines,” “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” and “Call to Arms” coupled with a cover of T. Rex’s “The Motivator” to end the show.
Other terrific selections from Simpson’s set were “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which led into the beautiful “The Promise,” both of which appeared on his terrific 2014 release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and “Turtles All the Way Down,” which was likely the favorite of his fans in attendance.
Willie Nelson, who I’ve now seen in concert on five occasions, seemed to be in a good mood on Friday night burning quickly through a list of his greatest hits in a set list that rarely seems to change – which is somewhat of a negative if you’re going to see him as many times as I have. He’s released some terrific new songs over the last two years and it would be nice to see some of these performed live, but at age 85 maybe this is something that’s frankly impossible for him to manage.
It was nice to see Nelson’s show turn into a family affair on Friday night with his sister Bobbie Nelson playing piano in the Family, as usual, and sons Lukas and Micah joining the band on stage with Lukas joining his father on guitar and Micah helping on percussions. One of the highlights of Willie’s set was Lukas taking vocals on the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic “Texas Flood,” which featured great guitar play from both Lukas and Willie.
All the hits were there on Friday night as they tend to be in a Willie Nelson show with crowd pleasing performances of “Whiskey River,” which always opens the show, “On the Road Again,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Always on My Mind” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”
I have to say I was slightly disappointed for the sheer fact that Sturgill Simpson didn’t return to the stage to join Willie on “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” as he had a few nights before at a show in Cincinnati.
Nelson also performed “Beer for My Horses,” a hit he had with Toby Keith in 2002, which he always seems to have in his set. I could be wrong in this, but I absolutely believe that Nelson overestimates his fans wanting to hear this song in concert. Why not kick it to the back burner and bring out yet another classic like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”?
One of the best performances from Nelson on Friday night was his frequent cover of Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man.” He also gave us the Hank Williams trilogy he frequently performs in concert: “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Move It on Over,” which always excites the crowd.
My absolute favorite performance from Nelson on Friday night was the timely performance of his 1986 release “Living in the Promiseland” with his sons. It’s one of the most underrated tracks in his discography and something everybody truly needs to hear these days.