The Avett Brothers, Willie Nelson, Gov’t Mule, Lucinda Williams Spark Outlaw Festival at Irvine, CA’s FivePoint Ampitheatre (SHOW REVIEW/PHOTOS)

Willie Nelson, the legendary musician, songwriter and social activist is still chugging away at 88. The singer brought his band to Irvine, California’s FivePoint Amphitheater on October 16, one of the 14 stops in 2021 along his annual Outlaw Music Festival tour. Joined by a strong supporting cast, Nelson and friends put on a solid show, with Ida Mae, Lucinda Williams, Gov’t Mule, and The Avett Brothers each performing a solid set before Nelson and his band finally closed the show.

Williams’ performance was up to her usual high standards, in spite of her recent health issues. Williams suffered a stroke last November and is now unable to play guitar. She explained that she has to sit for her shows, but said “having ya’ll here is what keeps me going.” She still sounded her soulful self, and her tight band did excellent work, especially guitarist Stuart Mathis who played several impressive solos. Williams’ “Pineola,” “Big Red Song Blues,” “Drunken Angel” and “Lake Charles”  all demonstrated her wonderful vocal skills, still unimpaired. She said, “I have to stand up for this one,” as she closed the set with her sultry song “Righteously.”

Lucinda Williams

Gov’t Mule was up next, with a typical showcase of Warren Haynes’ incredible guitar playing, husky vocals and versatility. He emphasized his slide-guitar skills throughout the set. The band covered a wide swath of their catalog, hitting on hard rock, blues and reggae tunes. Harder songs like “Railroad Boy”and “Beautifully Broken” had awesome guitar solos. The Van Morrison cover “Ballerina” featured a special trumpet solo by keyboardist Danny Louis. The Elmore James classic “It Hurts Me Too” featured Haynes’ slide guitar, while “I’m a Ram”  filled the air with strong reggae vibes. The usual set-closing “Soulshine” had passionate Haynes vocals, another great guitar solo and met all expectations.

Seth and Scott Avett led their band through an energetic, melodic set. They opened their show with just the two brothers and bassist Bob Crawford at center stage. Seth played acoustic guitar and sang while Scott and Bob harmonized the traditional folk tune “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The full band came out for the rest of the show. Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s harmonica player, joined the band for several songs. The string arrangements and harmonies were amazing as Scott (on banjo), Seth (guitar), Joe Kwon (cello) and Tania Elizabeth (fiddle) played impressively off each other.

Gov’t Mule

Seth and Scott traded turns on lead vocals while most of the other band members sang sweet harmonies. “Live and Die” had an infectious melody and got the crowd singing along. Scott was alone on the stage for a heartfelt “Murder in the City.” Seth joined him for an acoustic guitar duet on “When I Drink.” A traditional instrumental song called “Old Joe Clark” featured an incredible banjo and violin duet. All of the strings and remaining band members joined in for a raucous romp, as “Ain’t No Man” had Scott on lead vocals with more excellent harmonizing. Before finishing the show with a slow ballad called “No Hard Feelings,” Scott rhapsodized- “What a blessing it is to see Willie play.”

And Willie came to play. Nelson and his band hit the stage to a screaming standing ovation, as a bundled-up-for-winter Willie took center stage with his son Micah; the father-son duo sat at center stage with their guitars for the whole show. Willie’s acoustic guitar, holes and all, looked about as old as he is, but both his voice and the guitar still sound sweet. Willie’s impressive skills with rapid-fire fingerpicking and strong vocals have not waned a bit. He led the band through many of his hits, as well as a few songs by Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Mac Davis; some of his deep catalog tracks rounded out the satisfying show.

Willie opened with “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” He let Micah take over lead vocals on “If I Die When I’m High I’ll Be Halfway to Heaven.” Then Willie sang “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” The band transitioned smoothly without a break as Willie led the way on “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.”

Seth Avett

Micah took over for a hysterical version of “Everything Is Bullshit,” a song he recorded under the moniker “Particle Kid.” He and Willie did a compelling dueling guitar solo segment and Micah threw in a distorted riff on “The Star Spangled Banner.” Willie sang beautiful versions of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Big hits followed with “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind.”

“Write Your Own Songs,” a tune Willie co-wrote with Kristofferson about moronic, demanding record label executives got the crowd laughing. Mickey Raphael played a wonderful harmonica solo during “Georgia (on My Mind).” For the show-closing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean (Ida Mae), Warren Haynes and Scott and Seth Avett came out from the wings and joined the band for some harmonies.

The guests left the stage as Willie got up and took a bow. The band played instrumental versions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” as Willie grabbed some bandanas, walked to the front of the stage and threw them to the crowd. He also threw his hat to a lucky fan before exiting. Ever the showman, Willie Nelson still plays guitar and sings brilliantly while engaging the audience. We hope he can keep doing it for several more years.

Live photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon ©2021.

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