SARATOGA SPRINGS – Bluegrass wunderkind Billy Strings posted an image of his setlist from Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday night after the Outlaw Music Festival, headlined by country music icon Willie Nelson, concluded.
The first letter of each song on his setlist — starting with “Turmoil & Tinfoil” and ending with “Everything’s the Same” — spelled out a phrase: “THANK YOU WILLIE.”
Saratoga Springs was Strings’ final date of the all-star Americana music festival, which continues until mid-October without the 29-year-old bluegrass whiz. The cherubic-faced Strings, who set SPAC ablaze with his lightning-fast finger picking, needed some creative cover songs to fill out his setlist tribute to Nelson, including Marty Stuart’s “Old Mexico,” Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” and Pearl Jam’s “In Hiding.”
The sentiment of “Thank you, Willie” was surely felt by fans throughout the evening. At 89 years old, Nelson has traveled around the country every summer since 2016 with the Outlaw fest — but the legendary performer’s presence can’t be taken for granted.
A huge American flag served as the backdrop for Nelson’s set. He sat on a chair, holding his battered acoustic guitar named Trigger. A red headband circled his forehead, and his long gray braids hung over his chest. He’s modified his songs a bit to accommodate the limitations of his voice, but Nelson’s youngest son, the 32-year-old Micah, accompanied him on stage, providing support and helping to beef up the sound.
Highlights of Nelson’s set included indelible set staples “Whiskey River,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Georgia,” “Roll Me up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “Mr. Record Man.” He also joined his son on two of Micah’s best tracks: “Everything Is Bull—-” and the newer “Die When I’m High [Halfway to Heaven],” Micah’s lyrical ode to his father.
Micah, whose stage name is Particle Kid, opened the festival just after 3 p.m. as attendees were still filtering in and sudden heavy rain showers dampened the lawn. Joined by another guitarist and his stuffed octopus, Particle Kid played a modern-sounding and experimental acoustic emo rock.
After a quick transition, country singer Brittney Spencer, a powerful vocalist, led her four-piece band through a handful of tracks, including “Sober & Skinny” and a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’ ”
Nashville, Tennessee’s Larkin Poe was led by masterful guitarists and sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, the latter guitarist distinctive for playing a Rickenbacker lap steel slug over her shoulder and perched on her thigh. The pair, steeped in traditionalist Americana music, were a commanding presence on “Trouble in Mind,” AC/DC’s “Wanted Woman” and blues master Son House’s “Preachin’ Blues.”
Before Willie Nelson reunited all the performers onstage for a closing encore of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the seven-piece Avett Brothers put on a rousing, high energy performance over 15 songs that ran the gamut of rollicking set-showpiece “Satan Pulls the Strings” to elegiac closer “No Hard Feelings.”