Review: Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival & John Fogerty’s Celebration Tour unite genres, generations, geographies

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CINCINNATI, Ohio (WOUB) — Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center sits along the Ohio River, where the borders of Ohio and Kentucky meet. This provided a fitting backdrop for the metaphoric confluence of genres, generations, and geographies represented at Outlaw Music Festival last month.

Songs about rivers were a common thread among the Riverbend performers. Willie Nelson opened with Whiskey River. John Fogerty — front-man and principal songwriter of Creedence Clearwater Revival, performed Green River and Born On the Bayou off the heels of Up Around the Bend, and closed with Proud Mary’s ode to the “riverboat queen.” Gov’t Mule’s reputation for long, adventurous jams sharply contrast with Fogerty’s barrage of tight, punchy hits — but Mule’s Banks of the Deep End neatly complimented this theme.

John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival co-headlines Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival at Riverbend Music Center.
John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival co-headlines Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival at Riverbend Music Center. [Isaiah Cunningham I WOUB]
The bevy of river bangers at Riverbend couldn’t have been planned; but this coincidence speaks to what has kept it an annual tour. Outlaw’s 2016 inauguration coincided with the inauguration of Donald Trump, whose candidacy was ignited by polarization of different societal factions. Outlaw’s line up shines in its spirit of *uniting* those factions; both in terms of subject matter – after all, rivers have been the crucial spring for building prosperous civilizations throughout history, from the Nile in Egypt to the Mississippi in America’s heartland – and in wide-ranging origins of the performers, hailing from across the continent, as well as the last century.

Willie Nelson is a 90 year-old Texan. John Fogerty was born in San Francisco’s Bay Area, between WWII’s 1945 endings in Europe and Japan. Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes was a 60s baby in Asheville, NC before joining the Allman Brothers Band. Fogerty and Nelson were both accompanied by their millennial sons.

Younger musicians were excited to be alongside the veterans, and the torchbearers were delighted to share the spotlight with up-and-comers – culminating in Nelson concluding his set with an invitation for the entire day’s musicians to join him for Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival co-headlines Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival at Riverbend Music Center.
Riverbend Music Center was a fitting setting for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s bevy of river-themed songs. John Fogerty is pictured playing Green River, which CCR performed at Woodstock. [Isaiah Cunningham I WOUB]
Nelson has a mix of co-headliners throughout the tour. For the festival’s weekend in/near Ohio, that co-headliner was John Fogerty, who is amid his Celebration Tour — christened as such in honor of Fogerty obtaining a majority stake of publishing rights to his CCR catalogue, after a half-century battle.

“I outlived the sons of b****es!” Fogerty declared to rapturous cheers, before ripping through an encore of Bad Moon Rising and Proud Mary — Fogerty’s first hit composition, a feat made even more incredible by Proud Mary launching Tina Turner to superstardom, when she covered it two years later. Fogerty paid subtle homage to recently-departed Tina’s rendition by incorporating saxophone from Rob Stone – a Cincinnati native, sporting a Reds jersey.

Ohio provided Fogerty another source of celebration: recently recovering his prized 1969 Rickenbacker 325 guitar. Fogerty gave his six-string away shortly after CCR’s demise; it had played nearly all standard-tuning songs on CCR’s albums, and Fogerty played it for Woodstock and the Ed Sullivan Show. Forty-four years after separation, Fogerty’s wife (Julie) acquired it from Gary’s Classic Guitars in Loveland – just 20 miles “up around the bend” from Riverbend.

John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival co-headlines Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival at Riverbend Music Center.
John Fogerty’s Celebration Tour band includes his sons Shane and Tyler, pictured L-R. [Isaiah Cunningham I WOUB]
The icing on Fogerty’s celebration cake was playing his newly-acquired CCR songs with family: sons Shane and Tyler. This isn’t the first time John’s had family bandmates; brother Tom Fogerty was in Creedence. A major surprise of the set was Fight Fire, a song by the Golliwogs – CCR’s previous band name – that John co-wrote with Tom. John hadn’t reconciled with Tom – who sided against John in the song ownership battle with Fantasy Records – before Tom’s untimely death; so it was profound to witness John honoring Fight Fire with Tom’s nephews.

Willie Nelson offered a cooling tonic to Fogerty’s fiery set – but it didn’t take long to realize how they compliment one another. This was particularly apparent when Willie performed Write Your Own Songs, Nelson’s send-up of a record executive feeling entitled to dictate a successful songwriter’s creative output. Performing it after Fogerty, celebrating his hard-won battle for control of his CCR catalogue, gave it a profound new resonance.

Nelson’s set was peppered with references to long-gone colleagues. Waylon Jennings was repeatedly evoked – including on Good Hearted Woman, which Nelson reminisced they wrote together in Fort Worth. The dynamic duo also penned Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.

Ray Charles was honored with Georgia On My Mind. Willie has long credited Charles with expanding country music’s appeal, recalling Ray’s 1962 release of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music during the Civil Rights Movement. Nelson then attracted crossover attention to soul music when he covered Georgia On My Mind in 1978; it became a #1 country hit, and Georgia On My Mind was ordained the State Song of Georgia the following year.

Several songs shone with new resonance after Nelson’s 90th birthday. For Always On My Mind — the winner of 1982’s Song of the Year Grammy Award — hearing Willie lament “Little things that I should have said and done, I never took the time” at this age provokes tears.

After enduring three years of my ambitions repeatedly blockaded by COVID-19’s unpredictability, watching a seated 90 year-old Willie Nelson reassure that “Still Is Still Moving To Me” was deeply moving.

Pictured L-R are Gov’t Mule founding members, drummer Matt Abts and frontman Warren Haynes.
Pictured L-R are Gov’t Mule founding members, drummer Matt Abts and frontman Warren Haynes. [Isaiah Cunningham I WOUB]
Gov’t Mule preceded Fogerty. Borne from Allman Brothers Band’s guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody, “Mule” impressively carries southern rock’s torch in the Allmans’ wake – but with a heavier undertow.

Opener Traveling Tune, with its infectious “just another highway song” refrain, sounds like it could’ve hailed from the Allman canon. Haynes crooned angelically in his upper register, complimented by an equally luscious guitar tone. The pristine soundscape was then pummeled by Wake Up Dead, which Haynes pounded with dirtier shredding and a guttural snarl more evocative of ZZ Top — an astonishing display of Haynes’ guitar and vocal versatility. Allman fans were rewarded two classics: 1972’s Melissa, which Gregg Allman performed at Duane Allman’s funeral; and Soulshine, Haynes’ composition on 1994’s Where It All Begins.

The festival began around 3 p.m. (If you’re catching the entire program — which takes place at outdoor amphitheaters — plan for sustaining hydration and sunblock.) These were the preceding artists at Riverbend:

  • Kathleen Edwards: After her head-turning 2002 SXSW debut, Edwards’ chart fortunes peaked with 2012’s Voyager (#2 Canada; #39 USA). The former Starbucks barista then went on hiatus to open a coffee shop in Stittsville; 2020 saw her return to releasing music. Edwards closed with Back to Me, which she performed on David Letterman.
  • Particle Kid: Micah Nelson is Willie’s son, and he appears later on during his father’s set. The timbre of Micah’s voice bears similarity to Willie’s, but their 57-year age difference is evident – producing harmony that somewhat doubles Willie’s voice, but with enough differences to distinguish them. Micah’s company seems to buoy Willie, and probably key to him going “on the road again” at 90. Two of Micah’s witty compositions, Die When I’m High and Everything is Bulls***, are featured in Willie’s set. While Willie certainly influenced on Micah, his songwriting reminds me a bit more of Noel Gallagher — who played Riverbend last July.
  • Myron Elkins: The Zoomer welder’s upbringing in Otsego, Michigan (population 4,120) is embodied on Elkins’ debut album, Factories, Farms & Amphetamines, produced by Americana giant Dave Cobb. Factories sounds like Bob Seger teamed up with Black Sabbath to create a ZZ Top homage. (This is a sincere compliment!) After touring with Willie and Fogerty, Elkins returned to his roots and played the VFW in Otsego — reminding me of George Harrison playing the VFW in Eldorado, Illinois (population 3,573) six months before the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show

Outlaw Music Festival isn’t playing Ohio again in 2023; however, in the spirit of Willie’s blockbuster On the Road Again, there are shows within a short road-trip. The closest contender is probably Detroit on September 22. Joining Nelson are Bob Weir of Grateful Dead — who preceded CCR at Woodstock – and Wolf Bros, plus jam band darlings String Cheese Incident. Gov’t Mule play Outlaw’s Florida and Alabama shows in October. For tour dates, line-ups, and tickets, visit the festival’s website.