dylan review

Lukas Nelson performs at The PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, on June 30.

Lukas Nelson didn’t just have to replace his legendary father — Willie Nelson, who was too ill to perform — in the headlining slot of touring The Outlaw Music Festival, at its June 30 stop The PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. He also had to follow two other legends: Bob Dylan, who performed second-to-last, and Robert Plant, who teamed up with Alison Krauss for a set before Dylan’s. (A fourth act, Celisse, opened.)

It was a solid set — as authentic a celebration of Willie Nelson’s music as you could imagine — with the promised “special guests” (plural) turning out to be Edie Brickell (singular). But inevitably, it felt a bit anticlimactic, and many attendees opted to make an early exit and beat the traffic, rather than staying all the way to the end.

With his reedy voice, Lukas, who is 35, sounded uncannily like his father, at times, and his raw, exploratory guitar solos had more than a touch of his father’s spirit as well. He normally leads his own excellent band, Promise of the Real. But on the Outlaw Music Festival, he has been performing with his father’s Family band and playing, mainly, songs written by or associated with his father. (The tour began on June 21 and continues through Sept. 20, with Willie, 91, not yet well enough to participate, but expected back soon; he will not perform tonight at The Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, but is confirmed to return by July 4 in Camden.)

Lukas opened with his father’s traditional opener, “Whiskey River”; followed it with the similarly upbeat “Stay a Little Longer”; and also performed “You Were Always on My Mind,” “Georgia on My Mind,” a “Funny How Time Slips Away”/”Crazy”/”Night Life” medley (see video below) and so on. But he added to the mix a few of his own songs, too — “Just Outside of Austin,” “(Forget About) Georgia,” “Find Yourself” — and this helped keep the set from seeming too much like something you might see from a mere tribute act.

Family band guitarist Waylon Payne sang lead on Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.” And Brickell, beaming beatifically and singing warmly, joined in late in the set, for “Remember Me,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again” and a gospel-tinged medley of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Lukas then ended the set with a gorgeous solo version of the pensive “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”

Bob Dylan with drummer Jim Keltner at The PNC Bank Arts Center.

I saw Bob Dylan at NJPAC in Newark in November. Amazingly, just one of the songs performed in Newark, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” made it into the show in Holmdel — as a rollicking, piano-pounding set closer. And Dylan — who stuck to piano throughout the show (and also played a little harmonica) — certainly did not put together a “greatest hits”-style set for the festival crowd. (Not that anyone was expecting that.)

With top-notch session drummer Jim Keltner (whose credits include the two Traveling Wilburys albums and Dylan’s original version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) keeping the beat, he opened with one of his trademark songs, “Highway 61 Revisited.” And he did play, later, the ominous “Ballad of a Thin Man” and a slow, deliberate “Simple Twist of Fate” (with guest harmonica player Mickey Raphael, of Willie Nelson’s band). But he also sang some fairly obscure songs from his catalog (“Shooting Star,” “Under the Red Sky,” “Soon After Midnight”) and an all-over-the-place batch of covers (Chuck Berry’s rousing “Little Queenie,” The Fleetwoods’ melancholy “Mr. Blue,” The Grateful Dead’s starkly beautiful ballad “Stella Blue,” the truck-driving anthem “Six Days on the Road”).

Frankly, I enjoyed him more at NJPAC in November. But that probably has more to do with the setting than the quality of the music: He is someone who really should be seen in a theater full of attentive fans, rather than in a festival setting where lots of people are talking and moving around. And even without everything else, his enthusiastic embrace of “Little Queenie” (see video below) and “Six Days on the Road,” two songs I never imagined I would see him performing, made it a set I’m glad I got the chance to see.

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant at The PNC Bank Arts Center.

The odd couple of the leonine rock god Robert Plant and the low-key country-bluegrass star Alison Krauss — who have released two albums together, in 2017 and 2021 — had bad weather luck on this day: Rain came down hard during their set, drenching those on the PNC Bank Arts Center’s lawn (but not affecting most of those with seats in the venue’s covered area). But as far as I’m concerned, they offered the most magical set of the day. They may be two inimitable singers whose styles are very different, but their voices somehow work very well together. The blues-based Plant always seems to be striving to reach some kind of transcendence; the calm, almost other-worldly beauty of Krauss’ voice evokes that transcendence in a different way.

The Led Zeppelin song “The Battle of Evermore” was a major highlight, with Krauss brilliantly handling the duet vocals sung on record by Sandy Denny. She and Plant performed other songs from Plant’s past, too (Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” Plant’s 1983 solo single “In the Mood”) as well as vintage rock songs (the Allen Toussaint-written “Fortune Teller,” The Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone,” the Lucinda Williams hit’ “Can’t Let Go”) and other material, with a band featuring masterful musicians such as guitarist J.D. McPherson, drummer Jay Bellerose and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan.

The Outlaw Music Festival shared, on Instagram, this incredible photo of the clouds over The PNC Bank Arts Center.

When Duncan and Krauss engaged in an extended violin duel on “When the Levee Breaks” — the 1920s blues song reimagined by Led Zeppelin in the ’70s — they took it to another place entirely, with Duncan drawing on his bluegrass roots, and Krauss borrowing a hypnotic riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Friends.”

Due to heavy traffic on the Garden State Parkway, I only saw Celisse’s last few songs. She performed in a power trio format with bassist Sam Arnold and drummer Aaron Steele, and won me over with her big voice and fiery guitar playing on a cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and her own “Crazy.”

She’s got stage presence to spare, and commanded the crowd’s full attention, even though she was surely unknown to most of them, and the first act in a long afternoon/night of music.

The Outlaw Music Festival tour will include a “4th of July Picnic” at The Freedom Mortgage Pavilion in Camden, beginning at 1:30, with Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, and Celisse, joined by Maren Morris, Mavis Staples and Bowen*Young (featuring “Nashville” actress Clare Bowen and her husband, Brandon Young). For tickets, visit ticketmaster.com.

For more on the tour, visit blackbirdpresents.com.


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