Also known as Willie Nelson, Bob Weir & Wolf Bros, the String Cheese Incident, Los Lobos, and more performing at Forest Hills Stadium on September 17 this year.
What started as a one-day festival in 2016 has morphed each year since to where this summer’s Outlaw Music Festival was the largest tour, spanning from May through October. The Outlaw Music Festival 2023 celebrated Willie Nelson’s milestone 90th birthday just as the iconic outlaw himself wanted it – on the road with his family, friends, and fans. The lineup of additional performers changed from city to city, and by the time it came to Forest Hills Stadium, the festival featured Willie Nelson, Bob Weir & Wolf Bros, the String Cheese Incident, Los Lobos, and Waylon Payne.
No living musician is more firmly associated with outlaw music than Willie Nelson. Nothing labeled as an outlaw music event is plausible without Nelson attaching his pedigree. This tour was different, however, in that it expanded the scope of outlaw music to include jam bands in addition to country and Americana acts. As a result, different from previous years, tie-dye outfits were more than plentiful throughout the stadium, as were the tie-dye culture’s spinning and swirling aficionados.
The first act of the afternoon, Waylon Payne, has known Willie Nelson most of his life. Payne is the son of guitarist Jody Payne and Grammy Award-winning country singer Sammi Smith. His father is best known as a longtime guitarist in Willie Nelson’s band, The Family, and his mother toured with Waylon Jennings. Payne is named for Jennings, who is his godfather. Payne performed a brief set, including both original songs and familiar covers.
Fire and Rain (James Taylor cover)
All the Trouble
Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover)
Sins of the Father
Nobody’s Home on a Sunday
Formed 50 years ago in East Los Angeles, Los Lobos found a formula for blending rock and roll, Tex-Mex, country, folk, blues, zydeco, and traditional Latin music such as cumbia, boleros, and norteños. The band’s output continues to be much the same high-energy good-time party music. At Forest Hills Stadium, the band had much of the colorful Deadheads dancing by their seats or in front of the stage, especially during the closing medleys of “I Got Loaded” with “Turn On Your Lovelight” and then “La bamba” with “Good Lovin’.”
Will the Wolf Survive?
Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes
Chuco’s Cumbia (Spanish)
Georgia Slop (Jimmy McCracklin cover)
Love Special Delivery (Thee Midniters cover)
Don’t Worry Baby
I Got Loaded / Turn on Your Lovelight / I Got Loaded
La bamba / Good Lovin’ / La bamba
The String Cheese Incident
Forming in Colorado 30 years ago, the String Cheese Incident was probably the act on the bill with the shortest musical history. The String Cheese Incident is somewhat unique among jam bands in that the performance sometimes leaned mightily on bluegrass, yet sometimes was deeply rooted in jazz. Nelson’s band member, Mickey Raphael, played harmonica on “MLT,” and then Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin played saxophone on “Let’s Go Outside.”
Sometimes a River
MLT (with Mickey Raphael)
Let’s Go Outside (with Steve Berlin)
Hi Ho No Show
Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros(featuring the Wolfpack)
No matter how many bands Bob Weir forms, he forever will be best remembered as one of the two singers and guitarists of the Grateful Dead. Fresh from the farewell tour of Dead & Company, he teamed with the Wolf Bros, who are bassist Don Was and drummer Jay Lane. The Wolfpack, presumably, was the other eight musicians on the Forest Hills Stadium stage.
The majority of the set consisted of songs popularized by the Grateful Dead, except now with arrangements that included pedal steel, fiddle, and a horn section. Keeping the Weir family spirit, former RatDog member Kenny Brooks replaced Wolfpack regular Sheldon Brown on saxophone. Pedal-steel player Barry Sless and Dead & Company’s keyboardist, Jeff Chimenti, fed the arrangements with new riffs and fillers. Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, returned to the stage to join the Wolfpack on a cover of Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and again later on “Standing on the Moon.” “Eyes of the World” injected a cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On.” Other than that, the set hooked the Deadheads by fueling the familiar.
Weir was the lead singer and the only guitarist in the band. He failed to shine brightly in either capacity. His best contribution was in leading the jams, which ran somewhat loose, and encouraging new arrangements of vintage songs. He succeeded in maintaining the legacy of the Grateful Dead without becoming stagnant.
Jack Straw (Grateful Dead cover) (>)
Ramble On Rose (Grateful Dead cover)
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain (Willie Nelson cover)
Black-Throated Wind (Bob Weir song)
Estimated Prophet (Grateful Dead cover) (>)
Eyes of the World (Grateful Dead cover) (>)
What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye cover) (> ‘Eyes of the World’ reprise)
Standing on the Moon (Grateful Dead cover)
Turn On Your Love Light (Bobby “Blue” Bland cover)
Samson and Delilah ([traditional] cover)
Willie Nelson & Family
Just as Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros finished the last song, rain started to fall, scattering much of the audience to dryer areas. Many of the fans were still under cover from the rain when Willie Nelson & Family started earlier than originally programmed. (After all, in an open-air venue, promoters must get as much concert in before a threat of lightning cancels the show.)
The second surprise of Nelson’s performance was that Norah Jones played piano for the entire set. Jones occupied the seat vacated by Nelson’s late sister and longtime pianist, Bobbie Nelson, who died in 2022. Jones also shared a duet with Waylon Payne on a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Weir, members of the String Cheese Incident and Los Lobos, Jones’ Puss n Boots bandmate Sasha Dobson, and others joined the set from time to time. This was especially true during the set-closing run of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away,” which led into “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” Unfortunately, by then the rain returned and many fans heard the closing songs while sheltered under the bleachers.
Nelson sat throughout the performance, wearing his signature red bandanna along with a black t-shirt with the word “MAUI” printed on the front, singing and playing guitar. He was in fine voice, running together one song after another. The audience was filled with seniors, but he seemed to be the happiest (and oldest) of them all.
Wilson and company played all the songs the fans expected hear. These included many original as well as covers by other outlaw artists, including Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Hank Williams, and Kris Kristofferson. Perhaps due to the weather, Nelson did not speak much between songs – much of that chatter will be revealed when his book, Energy Follows Thought: The Stories Behind My Songs, is published on October 31. Nelson closed the set by smiling, waving, and tossing several red bandannas to the wet fans near the stage.
Whiskey River (Johnny Bush cover)
Stay a Little Longer (Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys cover)
Still Is Still Moving to Me
Down Yonder (L. Wolfe Gilbert cover)
Bloody Mary Morning
I Never Cared for You
Help Me Make It Through the Night (Kris Kristofferson cover, with Waylon Payne and Norah Jones on vocals)
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always On My Mind
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings cover)
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
Georgia (On My Mind) (Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra cover)
I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train (Billy Joe Shaver cover)
I Gotta Get Drunk
Write Your Own Songs (Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson cover)
Move It on Over (Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys cover)
Me and Bobby McGee (Kris Kristofferson cover)
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (William MacEwan cover)
I’ll Fly Away (Rev. J.M. Gates cover, with Bob Weir and Wolf Bros.)
It’s Hard to Be Humble (Mac Davis cover)
I Saw the Light (Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys cover) (Family Band Instrumental)