On the Road Again: Willie Nelson & his Outlaw gang shine at Star Lake

BURGETTSTOWN − He's still a slick guitar picker.

Say what you want about the enduring legacy of Willie Nelson, just don't forget to mention what an agile and entertaining guitarist he is, as evidenced Sunday at the 89-year-old music legend's latest visit to The Pavilion at Star Lake.

Nelson's nimble plucking and strumming of his trusty "Trigger," the long-ago given nickname for his acoustic guitar, was a highlight of his Outlaw Music Festival − a 6.5-hour pageant of iconic country, classic rock, Southern rock and blues.

Joined by his son Micah on acoustic guitar, and a backing band with upright bass, harmonica and drums providing the sparse and quick Texas swing, Nelson kept a brisk pace, chugging through 20 songs in an hour.

His voice sounded just as you remember, and as good or better than at any of the two prior Outlaw fests and the Farm Aid he's brought to the Burgettstown shed since 2017.

As a concert performer he still effectively "sells" the emotion of a song; be it the tender apology in "You Were Always on My Mind," or the feisty defiance in "Write Your Own Songs," a thumb-of-the-nose at record executives who don't think his songs deserve radio time.

Seated on a bench the whole time, with his customary hair braids down to his chest and wearing a red bandana with his name in white letters, Nelson started with the classic "Whiskey River." He sang with philosophical conviction on "Still is Still Moving to Me" and kept his guitar mastery going on "Bloody Mary Morning."

More than just a side musician, his son Micah sang the lead vocals on "If I Die When I’m High, I’ll Be Halfway to Heaven," a new song he wrote after hearing his dad make that remark amid a game of dominoes. The audience loudly applauded that song, and laughed aloud later when Micah reached the opening verse punchline of "Everything is Bulls---" his 2017 song inspired by watching the TV news and being confounded by social media, video ops and other distractions resulting from man's creation of a computer that fits in our hands.

As he's done in recent years, Willie turned "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" into a singalong. He growled and shouted the "Mamas!" and the audience sang the rest of the song's title.

Most fans stayed seated during the performance, but everyone rose to their feet for Nelson's signature "On The Road Again."

He sounded tender again on "Angel Flying Too Close to The Ground."

Nelson barely took a breath between Waylon Jennings' "Good Hearted Woman" and "Georgia on My Mind," followed by the toe-tapper "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train." Nelson sang with feeling and plucked some big, bendy notes on "I'll Love You Till The Day I Die" from an album released on his 89th birthday.

The gems kept coming, including Hank Williams' "Move It On Over."

Support act ZZ Top's guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Elwood Francis, came back out on stage to join in on "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" "I'll Fly Away" and Mac Davis' amusing "Hard to Be Humble."

ZZ Top's 16-song set was chock full of hits, starting with a revved-up "Under Pressure," onward to "I Thank You" and the traditional "Waiting For The Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago" pairing.

That new bassist, Francis, fit in well. Yes, like his predecessor, the late-Dusty Hill, he's got a long, bushy beard.

"That is not a pin-on beard, you get the real thing," bandmate Gibbons said.

Gibbons' vocals have gotten grizzled and a bit croaky. Though hearing him unleash his one-of-a-kind heavy guitar fuzz and crisp tones on songs like "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" and "Just Got Paid" was a treat.

Saying it was time for a country song, Gibbons brought up "16 Tons" made famous in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

"You know that song?" Gibbons asked. "I wish we did. We're going to do it anyway."

With that, ZZ Top tore into "16 Tons," with Gibbons giving it an intro that sounded like English guitar giant Jeff Beck, a collaborator he had mentioned just moments earlier.

Gibbons and Francis busted out their fuzzy white guitar and bass for the MTV classic "Legs" Third encore pick "La Grange" culminated with a bubble machine. Gibbons and Francis waited for still-beardless drummer Frank Beard to join them center stage for a final bow.

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Outlaw Music Festival also featured bluesy/Southern-rock jam-band Gov't Mule with exceptional guitarist Warren Haynes.

As he mentioned in an April interview with The Times, Haynes told the crowd about a special show at Rosebud in Pittsburgh's Strip District back in the day; which he firmly recalls as the first time Gov't Mule covered Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer." That song sounded amazing Sunday, with Haynes sharing guitar licks and vocals with Micah Nelson.

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Gov't Mule also stretched out blissfully on "Dreams" by the Allman Brothers Band, of which Haynes was a longtime member. Organ and trumpet from Danny Louis fleshed out the sound, as Gov't Mule satisfied with songs from last year's "Heavy Load Blues" album and staples like the Haynes-penned, Allman Brothers recorded soul-blues jewel "Soulshine," punctuated by Haynes flashing the two-fingered peace sign.

Sisterly-led Southern-rock blues band Larkin Poe very much impressed punctual fans with its 4:30-5:15 p.m. set.

With Rebecca Lovell on lead vocals and electric guitar and older sis Megan Lovell playing slide guitar on a lapsteel, Larkin Poe showed sizzle and flash, with hooks that got heads bobbing and spectators enthusiastically talking during the break.

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Scott Tady is entertainment editor at The Times and easy to reach at stady@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Willie Nelson and his Outlaw gang bring concert to Star Lake