2018 has been a turbulent year for America, to say the least, with a polarized political climate that makes the need for music that can raise consciousness and bring people together as needed as ever. With a ruthless regime of corporatocracy profiteers for the war machine and fossil fuel industry controlling both Congress and the White House while the planet burns amidst a climate change crisis, the time is ever so ripe for dissenting music against the establishment. Thank the stars for the Outlaw Music Festival here on this warm Sunday, October 21 at the Hollywood Bowl in the City of Angels, where six bands ranging from young guns to living legends are set to cut loose.
Country icon Willie Nelson and jamrock pioneer Phil Lesh are the headliners, riding high in 2018 as they continue to deliver vibrant musical performances as if they were only half the age of their time on this Earth. These two trailblazing elders of the live music scene also have both put their money where their mouth is in 2018, with activism to support progressive resistance against the foul machinations of a Republican Party that seeks to drag America back into the dark ages. Lesh quietly donated $10,000 in September to the GoFundMe campaign supporting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for costs in security, lodging, and transportation in her courageous effort to testify before the Senate Judiciary committee about the incident in which she reported that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. Nelson meanwhile headlined a benefit concert and get-out-the-vote rally on September 29 in support of Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz. It was the first time that Nelson had ever played a free public rally in support of a political candidate.
“My wife Annie and I have met and spoken with Beto, and we share his concern for the direction things are headed,” Nelson said in a press release announcing the event. “Beto embodies what is special about Texas, an energy and an integrity that is completely genuine.” And while O’Rourke would lose a narrow race to Cruz and Kavanaugh would ultimately defy logic and reason to be confirmed, these bold positions by Nelson and Lesh sent inspiring messages to their fans that the music community will not go quietly in the face of the Trump regime’s assault on America.
Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah both performed at the O’Rourke rally as well, and it’s their bands that kick off the show here today in Hollywood. Taking the stage as Particle Kid, Micah Nelson leads his band through a short but rocking set with a powerful sound recalling Neil Young & Crazy Horse (only natural since he’s supported Young on tour in recent years as a part-time member of older brother Lukas’ band Promise of the Real). The set ends with a bold statement against the insanity of the Trump era with “Everything Is Bullshit”, a dynamic tune recorded in 2017 that concludes with Micah smashing his guitar to pieces ala Pete Townshend. “To me, it’s a healing song about facing the reality of how weird and out of control reality is, and finding some humor in there,” Micah Nelson told Rolling Stone last year.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (POTR) take the stage just minutes later, opening their set with a deep statement of their own as Lukas sings out on an existential cosmic level in his daring new song “Entirely Different Stars”. The lyrics stand out from the start as Lukas sings of taking a spaceship ride to meet some aliens and dreaming of “a home planet that’s healthy and pristine”, while lamenting that his own planet which he holds “dear is ruled by greed and fear”. POTR has slowly but surely been winning hearts and minds across America throughout the decade, and this song demonstrates why as it captures Lukas’ unique sonic personality, mixing some of his dad’s classic country twang with a blast of classic rock power. Lukas Nelson’s soulful vibe and compassion for humanity shines throughout the 30-minute set, and it’s heartwarming to know that he’ll be carrying the family’s musical torch long after his dad shuffles off this mortal coil.
Margo Price is up next and the Nashville-based singer/songwriter delivers a diverse set demonstrating why she’s a rising a country star who has also caught the attention of the jamrock crowd since a sensational guest appearance with Widespread Panic at this summer’s Lockn’ Festival in Virginia. The multi-talented Price opens with a bluesy rocker, plays drums on another rocking jam, and then moves to piano for a solo performance on “All American Made”. She becomes the festival’s third straight artist to tap deep into the current national mood of angst as she sings heartfelt sentiments lamenting “Reagan selling weapons to the leaders of Iran” in 1987 and “I wonder if the President gets much sleep at night and if the folks on welfare are making it alright…” She brings the vibe way up at the end with a rousing cover of Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” and it’s clear that Price is going places with the rare ability to mix so many different musical styles into her set.
The vibe keeps surging as Sturgill Simpson and his band throw down a hard rocking 75-minute set that kicks the festival into overdrive. Simpson has a classic country voice but the set leans heavy on bluesy rock power with jams that conjure visions of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, with one sounding like Jimi’s “Voodoo Child” or perhaps his anti-war classic “Machine Gun”. Then there’s an electrifying take on Freddie King’s “I’m Going Down”, with Simpson shredding melty hot riffage to ignite the Hollywood evening as the temperature starts to cool now that it’s getting dark. The fiery jams take some by surprise as new fans become awed at learning that Simpson is no standard country artist.
The rock and roll crowd is warmed up now and there’s more to come when Phil Lesh & Friends hit the stage for their own 75-minute set. The performance starts a bit tentative with the band searching for the sound and some wondering who the second guitarist is along with Jackie Greene. But regulars at Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads club recognize Cris Jacobs as the young gun who impressed as the opening act for Lesh’s 4th of July show at Terrapin’s backyard. The band soon finds the sound on the classic “China Cat Sunflower” as ace keyboardist Jason Crosby and drummer Nathan Graham help Lesh hold down a tight groove while Greene and Jacobs start tearing up their fretboards as sparks begin to fly.
The x-factor is activated now and the sound continues to surge as Lesh leads the band through dynamic grooves on “Shakedown Street” and “Viola Lee Blues”, with the three-song sequence tapping into the transcendent psychedelic counterculture rock power that the Grateful Dead were first throwing down here at the Bowl in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The way Lesh keeps rocking down the “Golden Road” at the high level he does more than 50 years after the Dead first launched their long strange musical trip simply continues to amaze.
Lesh concludes with a big finale as Margo Price returns to the stage to give the band a helping hand on “Turn on Your Lovelight” (reprising a role that Janis Joplin once filled). “Holy shit I’m about to sing with Phil Lesh at Hollywood Bowl,” Price tweeted in excitement shortly beforehand and the whole group is having a blast here for a rousing conclusion to the set.
It’s been a stellar day of music but the biggest cheer of the day comes when Willie Nelson & Family take the stage, with the crowd roaring as Nelson arrives and leads the band into his traditional “Whiskey River” opener. The adoring audience is hyped throughout the set, alternating between mesmerized revery and screaming out adoration and cheers at peak moments. Early highlights include Lukas fronting the band on a bluesy “Texas Flood” and a heartwarming singalong during “On the Road Again”. The festival reaches a counterculture peak with “The World is Going to Pot”, a bouncy anthem co-written with Merle Haggard in which he and Nelson sing of their preference for cannabis over pills and booze.
The set hits peak zeitgeist toward the end when Nelson delivers the new “Vote ‘Em Out”, a rousing anthem for political action against the dark forces that have made the USA feel like an occupied country in 2018 (as Lesh noted at his 4th of July show when he stated that Americans have become “an occupied people… by people who shouldn’t be there…”) The song receives massive solidarity across the Bowl as Nelson sings, “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote em out.” This crowd is clearly ready for change, singing along on the chorus and ready to take action (and getting it when voters give the Democratic Party control of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 6 to provide some hope for America against the Trump regime’s fascist power play.) The set wraps with an another inspiring group singalong on “I Saw the Light”, with Margo Price helping out on vocals and Phil Lesh clapping along in joyful solidarity.
It’s been more than six hours of stellar music with a decidedly conscious vibe at one of America’s most classic concert venues. Counterculture music fans used to be outlaws in America merely for having a taste for cannabis, though the times are a changing since the sweet leaf is now legal in California and a number of other states. Being an outlaw these days is more akin to standing up for truth and justice against an Orwellian regime that has duped some 63 million Americans into believing that Donald Trump cares about their interests. The Outlaw Musical Festival has done a superb job here of standing up against hate and fear with music for higher consciousness and enlightenment, proving once again that America’s musicians remain one our nation’s best cultural weapons against the ever cunning forces of avarice and tyranny.