Harmonica player Mickey Raphael has stood by Willie Nelson’s side for 45 years. But no matter how much time passes, the view of the legend never gets old.
“From my vantage point, which is about six feet away, I’m a fan. At 85 (years old), Willie is still one of the most energetic guitar players there is,” Raphael said during a recent phone interview from Nashville, where he lives.
The longtime friends and collaborators come to town for the Outlaw Music Festival on Friday, Sept. 14. The concert, which also includes appearances by Van Morrison, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Lukas Nelson + Promise of the Real and Particle Kid, begins at 3 p.m. at the Pavilion at Montage Mountain, Scranton.
Watching the magic of Willie Nelson perform also keeps Raphael on his toes as a member of the band, thanks to the spontaneous nature of the classic country crooner’s style of playing.
“We don’t ever practice. It’s all improv. There’s no set list,” Raphael said. “The set follows a certain pattern, but we just follow Willie. He starts every song and then we come in, but he can change.
“He changes arrangements nightly, depending how he feels and how he reads the crowd. It’s a living, breathing thing.”
The fans in attendance hold sway over how the music progresses, too, Raphael noted. When the energy is high, the performers feed off their enthusiasm, and it affects the sets.
“When you have a crowd that’s present and involved, it pushes you to express yourself in different ways,” Raphael said. “You can look out there and see young people and older people — it crosses all generational lines — you can see that they’re getting into the music. There’s nobody sleepwalking through this thing.”
The easygoing vibe carries throughout Outlaw Music Festival, which originated in Scranton in 2016. This year’s collection of talent on stage, including much-celebrated Van Morrison, makes for a good time not just for the audience, but also for the artists, Raphael said.
“This tour is going to be great,” he said. “All the acts, they’re so much fun to watch that all the musicians are out there watching each other play. They’re not hanging out on tour buses.
“I start out just watching everyone else. Where can you see Van and Willie play? I grew up listening to Van Morrison. I’m such a fan. This is a whole day of music. Any one of these artists could play by themselves, but to have them all together in one venue on one day is a treat for everybody — not just the fans, but the musicians themselves.”
But as much as Raphael enjoys his point of view, he promised that nothing compares to being in the crowd before Willie Nelson when he’s in the moment.
“Willie is the kind of guy that when he’s singing, you feel like he’s singing right to you, and he is,” Raphael said. “He makes contact with the audience.”