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Outlaw Music Fest review: Willie Nelson gets back on the road again with Austin show

Call it a mini-Picnic.

The pandemic has pushed Willie Nelson's traditional Fourth of July Picnic to the sidelines for the past two years, but when vaccines helped slow the spread of COVID-19 this spring, Nelson's team got busy getting Willie back "on the road again." That led to the Outlaw Music Festival, a touring show that made its first stop at Austin's Germania Insurance Amphitheater on Sunday.

The fest isn't actually new, though it's new to Austin. Launched a few years ago to help bring a scaled-down taste of the Picnic experience to other cities, it features Nelson joined by a handful of Americana-oriented acts for a concert that's longer than normal, but not quite the marathon of his Picnic shows.

RELATED:The definitive history of Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic

The Austin concert was kind of a tune-up for the main stretch of shows, which includes 13 stops in September and October in cities from Philadelphia to San Diego. The revolving lineup of artists appearing with Nelson on those shows includes the Avett Brothers, Lucinda Williams, Margo Price, Gov't Mule and Sturgill Simpson.

Austin got a particularly strong bill, as performances from Chris Stapleton, Ryan Bingham and Yola preceded Nelson's headlining set with his Family band. Gates opened at 3:30 p.m. as a well-organized venue crew guided concertgoers through an entry procedure that included checks of vaccination cards or recent negative COVID-19 tests.

Willie Nelson and Family headline the Outlaw Music Festival at Germania Insurance Amphitheater on Aug. 22.

The venue announced on Wednesday that all attendees would need to show proof of either full vaccination completed two weeks before the show date, or a negative test within the previous 72 hours. Such policies have been in place locally for a few recent events at ACL Live and the Paramount Theatre, but Sunday's concert was the largest gathering yet to enact such a requirement.

It's not a foolproof system, of course.  Venue personnel didn't check names on concertgoers' proof-of-vaccination cards against names on their IDs, from what I saw. But among various measures to at least reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus, this seemed effective.

The Outlaw Music Festival recommended but did not require masks; that's in contrast to a mask requirement for this weekend's Gary Clark Jr. shows at the new Moody Amphitheater which was largely ignored by concertgoers and not visibly enforced by the venue.

Yola opens the Outlaw Music Festival at Germania Insurance Amphitheater on Aug. 22.

Those who arrived early were treated to arguably the liveliest set of the bunch, from fast-rising star Yola. The soulful British singer-songwriter, who was nominated for best new artist at the Grammys last year, took the stage at 5 p.m. for a 40-minute set that focused on material from her new album "Stand for Myself." 

MORE:Yola's 'Stand For Myself' is the album of the summer

"Hi, I'm Yola, nice to meet you," she addressed the crowd joyfully as she started her set, to the delight of some hardcore fans who were already aware of her — perhaps from her 2019 set at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, or her taping of the "Austin City Limits" TV show last year. Backed by a four-piece band, she quickly drew the attention of those still streaming through the gates with her powerhouse voice and strong melodic songcraft.

Ryan Bingham performs solo during the Outlaw Music Festival at Germania Insurance Amphitheater on Aug. 22.

Next up was country-folk troubadour Bingham, a former Austinite who won an Oscar in 2010 for his song "The Weary Kind" from the Jeff Bridges movie "Crazy Heart." Performing solo can be difficult when playing for an audience of thousands in an outdoor amphitheater, but Bingham pulled it off like a total pro, mixing stories from his cowboy days in Midland/Odessa and border adventures in Laredo with memorable songs that spanned the range of his 15-year recording career.

RELATED:Review of Ryan Bingham's solo show at One World Theatre in 2018

Perhaps the biggest draw of the evening — maybe even more so than Nelson? — was country superstar Stapleton, who'll be back in November for a headlining show at the Erwin Center (with Yola and Jamey Johnson opening). His six-piece band included Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb on guitar and Nelson sidekick Mickey Raphael sitting in on harmonica, as well as his wife, Morgane Stapleton, on harmony vocals.

Chris Stapleton, left, and his band perform at the Outlaw Music Festival at Germania Insurance Amphitheater on April 22.

With the possible exception of Jason Isbell, there's probably no better touring act in country music at present. Stapleton and band consistently delivered on tunes ranging from the twangy honky-tonker "Nobody to Blame" to the deeply bluesy "Worry B Gone" to the set-closing sing-along smash "Tennessee Whiskey," which he extended to nine minutes by introducing his bandmates.

Nelson took the stage at 9:30 p.m., and if it might have been a slight surprise to see him and son Lukas seated rather than standing, Willie's earned the right to play however he wants. At 88, his voice remains distinctive and resonant, while his guitar playing on Trigger still blends country, blues, jazz and other styles with more authority than a bucketful of hotshot six-stringers.

Willie Nelson, with drummer Billy English, performs at the Outlaw Music Festival at Germania Insurance Amphitheater on Aug. 22.

His hourlong set began, as always, with "Whiskey River," before touching upon time-tested classics including "On the Road Again," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" and "Always on My Mind." His piano-playing sister Bobbie, who turned 90 in January, got her usual spotlight on "Down Yonder." Bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Billy English, who took over the main kit after his brother Paul died last year, kept steady time throughout, while Raphael colored the tunes with lyrical harmonica solos.

Most intriguing, though, was the interplay between Willie and Lukas. The legend's second-youngest child has emerged in recent years as the most musically talented of the Nelson offspring, and on this night, it almost felt as if Willie is beginning to pass the torch. Lukas played a couple of his own best songs that were well-suited to the occasion: "Just Outside of Austin," which drew appreciative applause from the hometown crowd, and "Forget About Georgia," which they smartly segued into the classic "Georgia on My Mind."

MORE:Our 2021 interview with Lukas Nelson

Most fascinating was "Just Breathe," a Pearl Jam song that Willie recorded as a duet with Lukas on the 2012 album "Heroes." It sounded like nothing else in the set, a refreshing detour from typical Nelson sets that, for all their iconic hits, can sometimes be a little too predictable.

It wasn't hard to predict the finale, a medley of the gospel favorites "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "I'll Fly Away," but the moment was no less heartwarming for its certainty. All-star friends and family — Yola; Willie's daughters, Paula and Amy; and Chris and Morgane Stapleton — joined in to help sing the Outlaw Fest to a fitting conclusion. And, unlike recent Picnics that often stretched beyond midnight, we all got home at a reasonable hour, ready to meet the world again on Monday morning — with a festful of great music still playing in our heads.