This was Willie Nelson's party.
Sure, the country music legend brought along a slew of favored guests for his Outlaw Music Festival, including the Avett Brothers, Sheryl Crow, Blackberry Smoke, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real and Particle Kid (son Micah Nelson's band). So many acts, in fact, the Blossom Music Center show had to start around 4:30 p.m. — a tough time for folks rolling off work on a Friday.
Yet, like any good festival, people arriving at various times added to the buzz and movement of the event. There was certainly excitement to see Sheryl Crow "Soak Up the Sun" and the Avett Brothers belt out "I and Love and You," but rest assured, everyone was there to see the 84-year-old Willie Nelson, who naturally, closed out the show.
(See a whole slew of photos from the night's event right here.)
And the man, for the record, has still got it. Everyone from teens with braids and bandannas to a whole row of Hells Angels stood up when Willie took to the stage. They all cheered to the heavens.
As soon as Willie kicked into the song "Whiskey River," a gigantic Texas flag unfurled behind him, just in case for one minute you forgot the man hailed from the Lone Star State (later in the set, the band also took on"Texas Flood" in honor of Hurricane Harvey victims).
Nelson sounded as clear as he always did, which is to say his sing-talking approach is on point as ever. And his guitar skills are still something. Over his decades-long career, he's always had a way with guitar timing, kind of a jazz timing, that can sometimes feel off. And he played like that Friday night. The band would be locked into a country backbeat and he'd be fingering above it and beyond it. In his own world.
Throughout the night, the fantastic crew took on the hits, like "On the Road Again," and the raucous "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and a cover of "Georgia On My Mind," but also a fun tribute to Merle Haggard with "It's All Going to Pot."
Nelson's surrounded himself with family and friends. Fine players every one of them. This is a crew that can weave between earthy blues, rock 'n' roll, outlaw country and even spirituals without batting an eyelash. They know one another to their bones.
Son Lukas (who played with his own band earlier in the night) took on the secondary guitar playing and often heavy-hitting lead vocals. Sister Bobbie Nelson, 86, was on the keys with a signature nimble approach. Other son Micah played drums and later vocal harmonies. Mickey Raphael played the harmonica with so much dirt and grit, I was ready to hire him to play my next birthday party.
The Outlaw Music Festival has brought together the likes of Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket in the past, but to hear the Avett Brothers come out for the close of the show to sing "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away" was possibly too much. The entire venue smoldered like some sort of spiritual revival. People danced in the aisles. People smiled. It felt like this music was meant to make life better, if only for a little while.
At the end of the night, there wasn't much talking from the stage, just a sincere "thank you." And then Willie left. No encore. Only the sound of roadies beginning to tear down the stage. Someone helped Bobbie off her piano bench and she slowly walked out of sight.