Review by Max Stewart
God Bless Willie Nelson. He is a universally-loved American icon who is still kickin’ and performing for the masses at 89 (!). Kudos to the king. At the Alpharetta, GA night of the Outlaw Music Festival tour at Ameris Bank Ampitheatre, Nelson was clearly the main draw for attendees and likely the performers as well. I mean, who wouldn’t want to share the stage with Willie? The Georgia stop of the traveling tour included a mind-blowing list of artists: Billy Strings, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Charley Crockett, Larkin Poe, and Willie’s sons Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson (Particle Kid).
It was joyful night down south, with too many good tunes to count. Local Georgians Larkin Poe kicked off the festivities with some raw and powerful blues-inspired rock, playing to some hometown family and friends that were proudly seated in my section. Fronted by sisters Rebecca Lovell and Megan Lovell, Larkin Poe are continuing to improve their chops and songwriting upon each release (check out their latest, “Georgia Off My Mind”). Larkin Poe is no doubt a band that needs to be experienced live to get the full dose of their southern fried rock n roll.
Texas’ Charley Crockett pays homage to the days of yore when music had more soul and was ultimately more satisfying. Crockett has such a commanding baritone voice that dazzles and shines over the twang-filled songs of his set. It feels like a trip back in time seeing him perform, but not in a contrived or hacky sort of way. Crockett manages to keep the authenticity of traditional country and folk, while bringing a modern onstage persona and musical flavoring. Crockett and his band were dressed sharp as hell, too (something that is no doubt lost upon so many sloppy looking modern performers). Crockett just released a new album, The Man from Waco, including the fantastic “I’m Just a Clown,” which was a delightful addition to his set.
When Billy Strings took the stage, there was some real anticipation in the air. Strings played four nights at Atlanta’s The Eastern last winter (referenced in the song “Gone a Long Time” that he played: “Headin’ South to Georgia, four shows in a row”), so the Georgian crowd had some reference points for the new bona fide ‘The King of the Strings.’ He already has legions of devoted fans (and rightfully so), but some older folks that I spoke to who were there to see Willie were not as familiar. After declaring “We’re in Georgia, right?”, Strings launched into a phenomenal cover of the Athens, GA band Widespread Panic’s “Pickin’ up the Pieces” (video above). The set had a wide range of flavors for die-hard fans of Strings psychedelic spin on bluegrass, or some more traditional bluegrass for some of the purists in the crowd. All I know is that the roar at the end of his set affirmed that those unfamiliar were absolutely Billy Strings converts after his performance.
A Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit show always feels like a musical cleanse. So much purity and immersive lyrical content in Isbell’s songs, it is like stepping into a sonic sauna and letting the toxicity of everyday life wash over you. In fact, the last time we saw Isbell and his band perform was at Ameris Bank Amphitheater’s parking lot in October 2020 for a pandemic ‘drive-in’ show. Very thankful we got to see him in a more intimate setting this go-round. They played some of their staples, including “24 Frames,” “Alabama Pines,” “If We Were Vampires,” and the always chills-inducing, “Cover Me Up.” It was also awesome to see his guitarist Sadler Vaden pay tribute to his former band Drivin n Cryin with “Honeysuckle Blue.” Isbell also seemed to really lean in on his elite guitar prowess for this set (perhaps inspired by Strings)… and hot damn, he was rippin! “Overseas” for sure dropped a few jaws in the audience. Sometimes it is easy to forget how great of a guitarist he is when he blows you away by his lyricism alone.
When Willie Nelson rounded out the evening, he was joined by his sons Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson (Particle Kid). It really is incredible to see Willie still touring and bringing it night after night, and doing so with his sons by his side. His sets do not vary widely show to show, playing his usual mix of classics including “On the Road Again,” “Whiskey River,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind,” and many more timeless tunes. In a very poignant moment, his son Micah Nelson performed the song that was dedicated to his dad, “Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven),” Willie also played “Good Hearted Woman,” a song that was co-written and originally released by fellow member of The Highwaymen and Willie’s good buddy, the late Waylon Jennings.
The night was topped off by a highlight attendees will not soon forget: all performers joined together on the stage to sing the gospel standard, “I’ll Fly Away.” Willie Nelson was trading guitar licks with Billy Strings and Jason Isbell, with Lukas Nelson lending his electric guitar to Billy so he could get some volume (video below). All hands were on deck to sing the chorus with additional vocals from Charley Crockett, Larkin Poe and Micah Nelson. Pure musical joy, plain and simple. I reckon many of the artists originally joined the bill on the Outlaw Music Festival with hopes that they would get to perform with the legend himself.
What a moment. God Bless Willie Nelson.