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Concert Reviews:
Takeaways from the Outlaw Music Festival at Joe Louis Arena

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

Posted: Sunday, July 9, 2017

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DETROIT -- Being an outlaw has definitely been in since Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and other compatriots made it hip during the mid-70s. But while the Outlaw Music Festival celebrated that spirit on Saturday, July 8, during the penultimate concert at Joe Louis Arena, it was certainly the domain of revered icons (Nelson and Bob Dylan), an established hitmaker (Sheryl Crow) and acknowledged comers in the Americana genre (Jason Isbell and projects by Nelson’s son Lucas and Micah). Over the course of six acts and nearly seven and a half hours -- before disappointingly spare crowd that filled maybe a third of the venue -- the show made a case for both the heritage and the continued health of the music.

There was a lot of it, to be sure, and it felt somewhat odd to be indoors for a package clearly conceived for amphitheaters. Nevertheless it packed plenty of musical punch over the course of the show. Here’s sven takeaways from a long day with the Outlaws...

• Lukas Nelson was the show’s MVP and a star in the making -- if not already there. He dazzled leading his band Promise of the Real through its 40-minute set with soulful vocals and dazzling guitar solos. Nelson then joined Crow for a rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” that closed her portion of the show, and he was front and center for much of his father’s set, taking more solos and singing lead on a cover of Larry Davis’ “Texas Flood” in honor of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

• Nelson pater has struggled with some health issues recently, but he was in fine talk-singing voice on Saturday -- though his delivery of “Georgia On My Mind” was a show-stopper -- and as nimble as ever on Trigger his beat-up constant acoustic guitar companion.

• The Outlaw festival didn’t have nearly enough “festival” -- i.e. collaborative -- moments such as Lukas Nelson’s appearance with Crow, but Willie Nelson certainly ended the night on the right foot having Crow and Isbell’s wife, violinist Amanda Shires, join his Family band for the tongue-in cheek “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and a spiritual medley of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw The Light.”

• Bob Dylan is clearly enjoying his recent foray into crooning. Though his 75-minute show featured plenty of typically idiosyncratic arrangements of some of his most important songs -- including a powerhouse version of “Desolation Row” -- it was also marked by clean ‘n’ clear vocals, especially when he and his band tucked into renditions of standards such as “Why Try To Change Me Now,” “Stormy Weather,” “Once Upon A Time” and a sumptuous “Melancholy Mood,” often posturing center stage handling the microphone stand as a prop.

• For those paying attention, Dylan’s Academy Award trophy for the show-opening “Things Have Changed” from the film “Wonder Boys” was, as usual, on stage, atop an equipment case near his piano.

• You know you have a good career when you can leave your (arguably) biggest hit on the bench and still deliver an exceptional set. Crow, in her silver glitter pants and Dylan T-shirt, did not perform “All I Wanna Do” on Saturday, but the omission was barely noticeable amidst a hit parade that included “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Soak Up The Sun” and more. Crow was also the only Outlaw performer to acknowledge the impending closing of the Joe, noting that, “We’re sending it into the great beyond...We’re celebrating that, right?”

• Give Nelson’s other son, Micah -- who also plays in Promise of the Real and in his father’s band -- points for self-awareness. After removing the space helmet he wore as Particle Kid for the show’s opening set, Nelson thanked the smattering of mid-afternoon fans there “for coming out early to hear my weird songs,” a 20-minute set of space cowboy ambience that was easily the most outlaw music of the festival day.

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