REVIEW: Outlaw Music Festival at Riverbend Music Center

Photo Cred: Michael Gabbard Photography

When I was a kid, there was a cabinet at the bottom of my dad’s Pioneer stereo center that housed hours of exploration in the form of large vinyl discs. About three times a year he and I would take a Saturday night, a Dr. Pepper within my reach and a mixed drink within his, and we would take turns picking out what went on the turntable next. I would always come back to the Stardust album, and we would put it on. I would soar with the vocals and get taken on a ride during the guitar solos like a sonic roller coaster. Then my dad would put on a record and I would hear the brash guitars and vocals of Creedance, yet somehow they didn’t sound wrong. The lyrics were simple and direct. This was the early foundational education for what was going to take root in my life to come. So when I got the opportunity to write a concert review for the Outlaw Festival I jumped all over it.

I was excited to make it to the stage to catch Myron Elkins. As with most opening acts at these types of festivals, the goal is to impact new pairs of ears that would have never heard of you otherwise. A certain type of music fan reads the smaller names on the festival poster weeks ahead, creates a playlist to familiarize themselves, and sets up camp at the festival early in the day to be wowed by the hungry opener! Myron was hungry in the way a man that is confident in the stories he’s written. Standing center stage, by himself, with only his full body Martin slot-head acoustic was the 21-year-old with a voice that seemed to roll around in his mouth before it hit the microphone. His voice carried well and his guitar playing was polished and his songs were deep and personal. He played songs from his debut record “Factories, Farms, and Amphetamines” and played one unreleased song. Myron finished with a song called “Hands To Myself”, which is on the aforementioned record, speaking on domestic violence and he sang the third verse that was left on the editing room floor out of concern for time. It is worth the listen to the song and catch him the next time he comes through town to maybe catch that third verse. As for this music fan, I was wowed by Myron.

A quick changeover happened as Myron stepped off stage to a well-deserved ovation, and Particle Kid stepped into place. Donning a Chicago Bulls red-billed ball cap, a Sonic Youth shirt poking out under an oversized jacket, and lace-up boots, he dove right into his first song after a subtle hello. The open tuning on his small-bodied Taylor guitar was EQ’d just right for the room. The low end boomed and the mid and high end was balanced to fit his combination of strumming and fingerpicking. Not only was he playing and singing but he was also controlling the time-based effects of his guitar and vocals on the pedal board at his feet. He was executing seamlessly. Visuals on the screens matched the style he was bringing as an offering. Bright Eyes meets Nirvana meets Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds of Country Music. A topic that seemed to be a common thread was the world's origin story or civilization’s beginning. He wrapped up his set with “Everything is Bullshit” a song about the Stoned Ape Theory. He looped a quick kick and backbeat sound from his guitar and played over it for “Bullshit” He finished with a big strum and said, “Thank you, I’ll see you soon.” That was the moment I realized that he was Micha Nelson, Willie’s son. Just as quickly as he came on stage, he was off as well.

After a longer changeover this time, a band walked out on a stage set for a 5 piece. Drummer, bass player, steel guitar, and electric were set up to support the 45-year-old Kathleen Edwards. They all made their way to their stations waving to the applause from the crowd. They launched into their set of Kethleen’s extensive catalog. Holding a traditional black and yellow Gibson Les Paul Jr, she sang “I will always be thankful for you.” The band was super tight with the drums and bass locked in with a straight drive, giving room for the pedal steel to provide a large sonic bed for both electric guitars to chime. The lead player primarily switched between a baby blue telecaster and a red wine Guild 335-style guitar. Kathleen bounced around from the Les Paul Jr to a Gibson J45 and even played fiddle for one song. You could tell it wasn’t a secondary instrument for her as she played it confidently and proficiently.

She stood tall in front of the mic, confident and oozing with cool, delivering her thoughtful and folk-like lyrics unabashedly. Wearing black thick-rimmed Ray Bans, a black sleeveless shirt with white letters reading “Sex, Drugs, Lobster Rolls,” she said in between her songs that she was honored to be the only female on stage for the day and was proud to represent. They played a set of 7 or 8 songs. One called “Who Rescued Who” about a dog she once had named Red. She just barely got through the intro and chuckled about the emotions before they kicked off into the tune.

They finished their set with two rocking tunes that featured pedal steel solos and electric guitar solos trading back and forth trying to match and beat each other. This set the tone for the rest of the night. It was a gear shift into 5th, and the engine was starting to spool up. Kathleen and her band finished their set with a big “trash can” ending sustaining out their notes. They hit the last note and the crowd jumped to their feet to give a well-earned standing ovation.

Gov’t Mule was next. They came out to the roar of the crowd. Walking out to their stations, a drum kit, a bass guitar and amp, a keyboard fortress, and lead guitar land. They kicked into their set with “Traveling Tune” which opens up with Warren Haynes’ vocals singing, “Just another highway song. Just another traveling tune.” to put an exclamation point on the fact that this is their last tour stop for a while. I had never seen Gov’t Mule live, nor would I consider myself a follower of their music. I do, however, enjoy Warren Haynes’ playing and was excited to hear their offering for the day. I was surprised by the way the bass player, Kevin Scott, carried a lot of the melody in certain parts of the songs by playing up and down the neck. Danny Louis on keys was working hard by swiveling around from the Fender Rhodes electric piano to the Hammond B3 organ and leaning over to the microphone to add tasteful harmonies. The drums, played by Matt Abts, were a wall of drum shells and cymbals. With the option to be able to play a pentatonic scale on his toms, Matt was adding a rhythmic feel to the songs. There are so many possibilities of sounds in a blues rock jam band and he fit the bill just right.

Warren is one of the best guitar players active right now and it was a treat to watch him work. What he is also great at is singing and he didn’t disappoint there, either. Both his playing and vocal expressions were effortless and soulful. The third song brought out artist and guitar player Jackie Greene and the iconic harmonica player Mickey Raphael to join in on Mellisa, a song that is a staple for Warren Haynes to play after his time spent as a guitar player for The Allman Brothers Band. Jackie handled the main guitar riffs and first solo on a sunburst Les Paul. Mickey took his turn on the second verse when the line "Freight train, each car looks the same…” was sung. He blew his iconic harp sounds into the microphone and made everyone in the room light up. Warren, Jackie, and Mickey all traded solos to finish Mellisa.

Micha Nelson traded places with Mickey on the next song and jammed with Jackie and Warren on his Telecaster. Again, trading solos and laughter through it all.

Warren introduced Ron Holloway to the stage and in came a man wearing a white brass saxophone and a colorful button-up shirt. He instantly added a Motown feel hitting some pickup notes out of a couple of turnarounds. Then, Warren handed the stage to Ron and he took control. He dipped his toe in to check the temperature with a few melodic runs. He found a groove to push the pace and the band followed. The intensity grew and the saxophone squeals started. He was now working out the reed and ligature. He finished with a punch and got a roar of applause. Ron and Warren started to, you guessed it, trade some solos back and forth until they got to a big trash can ending. Standing ovation for Ron and his sax after that one.

Danny Louis on keys played the familiar opening chord progression to “Mule’s” biggest hit “Soulshine” and the crowd jumped to their feet cheering. The crowd sang along and swayed back and forth, coming together as a great big collective to wish all the neighbors that were there peace and happiness by singing “You’ve got to let your soul shine, shine till the break of day.” Warren has probably played a solo every which way you can play for this one and the notes just left his fingers with ease as if he were having a conversation. There was one last trash can ending, a great big “Thank you” by Warren and a great big thank you back from the crowd as the whole amphitheater cheered them off the stage.

I took a walk to grab a drink and then settled back into my seat just in time for an introductory video to start on the screens. It was John Fogarty’s voice telling the story of how he and CCR came to be. The success that they had, and the heartbreak of losing his songs through music business deals he was involved in. The intro ended with the announcement that he finally, after a few decades, has ownership of his songs again. The crowd cheers and the band runs out onto the stage and starts into a rock and roll swell. Then John Fogarty runs out onto the stage, to one side, then the other, smiling and waving with his guitar on. Wearing his working man's blue flannel shirt and red bandana tied around his neck he gave the band the signal to start. John’s son, Shane, starts the opening sliding riff to “Up Around the Bend” and the show kicks off. Big sound, big energy, big band, and John’s big voice. He proceeds to sing the song flawlessly, play the solos flawlessly, and keep running around on stage like he is 35 years old.

I would not have guessed that he was 78 years old by his energy, playing or singing. As singers get older in age, they tend to start lowering the keys to the songs a little bit to help with fatigue. These songs sounded like they were being sung in the original keys! Song after song was just another mega-hit and another wonderful guitar. He played primarily Les Paul guitars but would get them swapped out almost every song for a different sound. He did have a red B-Bender Telecaster for “Out My Backdoor” which he utilized the bender during the solo. He was really making any guitar player in the audience self-conscious by the way he was tearing up each one of the solos he took.

He had a Rickenbacker guitar brought out to him while holding it he told a story of how he gave it away right after CCR had a smash hit and how his wife Julia found the guitar just a few years ago right here in Cincinnati and got it back to him. He kicked off “Who Stopped the Rain” after that and the crowd was all in for the sing-along. It was just hit after hit, amazing guitar solo after amazing guitar solo, and spot-on vocals.

The iconic single-coil Louisville Slugger guitar made its way to the stage to play “Centerfield” A Blue Flannel Les Paul to match his shirt came out to play Fortunate Son. He had a champagne toast prepared to thank the fans for “carrying these songs with you” for the past 3 plus decades and also thanked Willie for including him in the festival. The band came out to play “Bad Moon Rising” and “Proud Mary” to finish their set off. Not a word was missed by the whole crowd as they were on their feet belting them out. The band came out together to take a bow after the final notes rang out and the audience was thrilled to have gotten that show!

Only 15 minutes later the stage was cleared and set up for a tight circle for Willie’s set. A stand-up bass player, a drummer only playing a snare, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Micha Nelson on acoustic, and Willie Nelson center of the stage. He asked, “How y’all doing?” and then they kicked right into “Whiskey River.” It was uptempo and moving! If you have never seen Willie live late in life, it might be jarring the way he phrases his vocal lines. Willie has always had a jazzy, maybe early, maybe late style of delivery. However, as of late, it is exaggerated. But I do have to say, he is still in control, even if it feels like he is just throwing words out. He has his marks that he wants to hit with the phrases and it seems like he does that consistently.

Let’s also talk about his playing. He and Trigger both look as beat up and tired as they probably feel, but one thing they aren’t is incapable. The 1969 Nylon string Martin N-20 is the most iconic guitar in country music and it sounds like its reputation. Willie was always an incredible guitar player and he might not be able to do everything that he used to, but he still knows how to get around the fingerboard of Trigger. There were points in his solos where he would flurry through a jazz scale that would make any guitar player in the audience twist their head sideways like a dog hearing the treat jar open up. It was really something to watch him play.

Willie and Micha were singing together the whole set. Trading who was leading and who was singing harmony on certain songs. With his bandana and braids and the red white, and blue guitar strap strung around his neck, Willie played classic after classic. Stay A Little Longer, Bloody Mary Morning, Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground, On The Road Again, You Were Always On My Mind…The set list was stacked. Through all the songs, the band was so consistent. Country bass and train shuffles on the snare and Mickey played the way Mickey does with the harmonica, and Micha being a stellar acoustic player.

Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys was a fun sing-along for the crowd as Willie would yell out “Mamas” and the crowd would finish the line back to him. Micha sang a song that he wrote from the perspective of his father called “Halfway to Heaven” with the line finishing the chorus as “If I’m high when I die I’ll be halfway to heaven or I might have a long way to fall”. That got a roar from the crowd.

They came to the end of the set to play a “Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away” medley after inviting the whole cast of performers to come out to the stage and join in. It was a joyous moment of the night to celebrate it. I felt the warmth while singing back towards the stage in a way to say thank you to everyone up there. It was a long day of incredible music. Willie blew kisses to everyone from the stage and waved as he walked off. The band played him out and Micha enjoyed the last few notes by standing on his chair to lead the band in the final hits with a big ol smile on his face.

The show schedule stayed together due to the incredible work done by the stagehands, roadies, sound engineers, instrument techs, and stage managers. It was a great festival that ran at the highest level, with the pinnacle of music on display. If the Outlaw Festival comes back again, make sure to get your ticket and take it all in! It was absolutely worth it. As for me, I think I need to take some whiskey over to my Dad’s house, mix a couple of drinks and tell him about the show over a floor full of vinyl records!

Outlaw Music Festival

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