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Willie, Neil bring the classics - soft and rockin'

Willie, Neil bring the classics - soft and rockin'

Outlaw Music Festival draws big crowd to SPAC
Willie, Neil bring the classics - soft and rockin'
Willie Nelson closes the night in concert Sunday at the Outlaw Music Festival at SPAC
Photographer: erica miller

For those who came to see Neil Young at Sunday’s Outlaw Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, they heard a great set of his classics. Young’s set was part of a six-act event, and Willie Nelson, the other big draw to the over-crowded SPAC, followed Young to end the night.

At first Young played a nice row of his softer tunes, all of them great. These included the opener, “Tell Me Why,” “Lotta Love,” “Are You Ready for the Country,” “Heart of Gold,” and more. Wearing his signature flannel, his voice sounded the same as always, high-pitched and angelic.

There were yells for “crank it up” toward the end of these songs, and some of us questioned why the four guitarists from Promise of the Real were needed on stage.

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And then he strapped on the electric guitar, strummed the first chord to the epic “Powderfinger,” and the place came alive. His solos were as fierce as ever, his body still contorting spastically while he rung out high notes with his whammy bar. The four guitarists circled the wagons with each jam, their bodies bouncing around like four parts of the same unit, much like his old band Crazy Horse.

Then came the battle cry of “Ohio,” with the constant refrain, “four dead in Ohio.” The song addresses the 1970 Kent State campus shootings but felt fresh in today’s political climate.

Beyond this tune, almost all his songs had political overtones — a statue of a Native American was part of the stage set.  Three times he implored the crowd to buy food at their local farmer’s market. “Show your kids what real food is,” he yelled, telling us “they’ll love the tomatoes.”

His more recent soft one, “Show Me,” included the timely chorus, “when the women of the world are free to stand up for themselves.”

He closed with a maniacal “Keep on rocking in the Free World.” Young was wild on this, and had no problem shouting into the mike. His transformation was full circle and impressive – starting the show with acoustic guitar or piano, a harmonica around his neck, softly asking, “are you ready for the country,” to attacking his grungiest hardest-hitting rock tunes.

Willie Nelson came on with the smooth and quick “Whiskey River,” and followed with a series of three-minute hits, before his son Lukas broke the pattern with a slow blues, which featured him on a great guitar solo. The young Lukas is a strong guitarist, and Young gave him some space during his set too — Lukas led Young’s backing band Promise of the Real.

As a young man he sang with an understated, soft voice, so it works for him well today in his more older years. “On the Road Again” was short and fun, as was the knee-slappin’ “Jambalaya,” where he showed us some fancy finger-pickin’ and a slight growl on vocals. He also displayed some guitar skill during the fills of the beautiful “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” 

There were a smattering of older couples slow-dancing through a few, including the classics “You Are Always on My Mind,” and “Georgia.”

Nelson’s set was a long way away from the two previous high energy rocking bands — his drummer used brushes occasionally. But the songs were all wonderful and it was an appropriate ending to a long day.

Sturgill Simpson played a heavy, super loud set before Young’s show, loud enough to lose its clarity in the pavilion. Ushers were passing out ear-plugs during this set to sections near the stage. Songs lasted 10-plus minutes, with guitarist Simpson playing long solos on his guitar, and jamming with his four-piece band. He is an unabashed, unafraid guitarist. The four-piece band were cranked up every minute of the 80-minute set. Simpson’s voice and approach to singing is a bit like Waylon Jennings, but his band behind him sounds like a hyped up Crazy Horse playing acid rock. This mix was fresh, and Simpson’s playing, and his band, blew everyone away with their sheer will and energy as they kept blasting us with their simplistic but intense, loud jams.

Earlier bands included Particle Kid, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. Promise of the Real, led by Willie Nelson’s son, also performed as Neil Young’s band, and Lukas played and sang with his father as well.

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