At 86 years old, Willie Nelson is not only a music legend, he’s an institution.
Spearheading another year of the Outlaw Music Festival, the country icon saw himself (and a trio of additional acts) perform at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage.
First on the list was Matt Mays, who played a defiant and heartfelt collection of ruminations. Hailing from Hamilton, Ontario, the Canadian artist was backed by two guitarists, a drummer, and a violinist, adding muscle to the purity of his sound. A storyteller through and through, the music thrillingly reflected the mood of the set list, from earnest country hymns to a harder rock edge.
Sandwiched between Matt Mays and the penultimate act, The Avett Brothers, the angelic Alison Krauss filled her performance with carefully chosen tracks, full of fire and quiet grandeur.
An outlaw on her own terms, the Illinois-native wielded a fiddle as she played alongside her Union Station bandmates, creating a unique tone that swept attendees into a rarified realm.
Opening with River in the Rain, the song bubbled wonderfully with passion, yet never once overflowing with melodrama.
Surrounded by a beautifully antiquated stage design and props that transported onlookers to the 1940s, her Ghost in this House played even better, complimenting the haunted décor with her unsmiling narrative of severance.
Bringing a lighter touch to the proceedings, The Avett Brothers personified a wild-eyed set of country-fried rock and roll and bluegrass folk.
Brothers Seth and Scott (from North Carolina) gushed with energetic abandon, flinging choruses back and forth while bouncing about on stage.
The band stirred the crowd with the boogie gospel of Satan Pulls The Strings while running loose on a handful of other songs that commenced softly before propelling forward with Mumford & Sons-like momentum.
However, unlike the relatively youthful sounds that filled the late afternoon air, when Willie Nelson stepped out, his legendary status did all the talking. Still possessing his leathery voice paired with his trusty Trigger (his beat-up Martin N-20 classical guitar), the night turned magical, especially on ballads such as Georgia on My Mind and On the Road Again.
Similar to Bob Dylan, Willie has ridden the coattails of his larger-than-life legacy in recent years. His singing, although raw and weary at times, nevertheless was a sight to behold, partly due his prolific catalog of songs.
To that effect, his hour-long set was simple and poignant. An easygoing trip through originals and covers, worn and recent, all done in the unique style only the Red-Headed Stranger could have delivered.