There it was at the end, a crazy only-at-Willie’s-Picnic moment you had to see to believe: Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic Texas congressman seeking to oust Ted Cruz from the Senate this fall, was playing guitar with Willie Nelson onstage at Circuit of the Americas.
Alongside him, Willie and his Family band, joined on this night by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, churned out their traditional closing medley of gospel favorites “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Margo Price came out to sing along. So did members of the Head and the Heart, Ryan Bingham’s band, Folk Uke and others who’d had their moment in the sun — and rain — during this long Independence Day’s journey into night.
Beto’s cameo served as a fitting finale to a 13-hour bash that was anything but your standard Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. The plot line kept changing throughout the course of the day. First, why had 11:30 a.m. opener David Allan Coe not shown up? (Never did get an answer for that.) Next, boy is it hot out here: Early-afternoon temperatures were in the low-90s, but stifling humidity made it feel about 30 degrees beyond that.
Yellow Feather, featuring Casey Kristofferson (daughter of longtime Picnic participant Kris), kicked things off on the Plaza Stage, using Coe’s no-show as an opportunity to play a slightly longer set. Then it was straight into the Nelson family stretch, with granddaughter Raelyn Nelson followed by Folk Uke, featuring daughter Amy, and then Particle Kid, featuring youngest son Micah. All braved the heat with entertaining short sets well-received by the early, smallish and sweltering crowd.
Then came the game-changer. Forecasts had called for midafternoon rain, and at about 2:30 p.m., the call went out across the grounds: Performances were suspended, storms were imminent, everyone take shelter in their cars. The couple thousand early-arriving Picnic-heads departed to wait out the rain in the parking lot.
The warning-call came just early enough to allow for an orderly evacuation. By 3 p.m. or so, Circuit of the Americas was socked-in with gray on all sides, thunder echoing and lightning occasionally flashing as rain came down in sheets. The weather was never particularly dangerous, but you sure didn’t want to be out in it.
After 4 p.m., things slowed to more of a drizzle, and soon came word via the venue’s Twitter page that music would resume at 5:25 p.m. with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real on the Amphitheater Stage. The bad news: Sets from Gene Watson, Johnny Bush, Jamestown Revival, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Wild Feathers, Billy Joe Shaver and Asleep at the Wheel were all washed away by the three-hour delay.
That was a tough blow for Picnic traditionalism, as four of those seven acts — Bush, Hubbard, Shaver, the Wheel — play the event almost every year. Still, sets from seven more acts remained in place, including the biggest names on the bill as the evening wore on toward a 10:15 p.m. fireworks display.
As fate would have it, music resumed right where it had left off, in Nelson-family mid-stream. This was a big week for Lukas Nelson, the most promising musical talent among Willie’s kids: He and his band taped “Austin City Limits” for the first time on Monday. They touched on some of the same highlights in Wednesday’s abbreviated set, including the location-perfect ballad “Just Outside of Austin” and the epic “Forget About Georgia” plus a splendid cover of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
What followed was a six-pack of headliners that mixed acts right in the strike zone of the Picnic demographic with a couple of curveballs that mostly fared well. Of the latter, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ set was marvelous and long-overdue. Aside from a brief appearance at last fall’s Erwin Center benefit for Hurricane Harvey relief, the hitmaking Texas band hadn’t played Austin in almost two decades.
Yes, they played “What I Am” and “Circle,” the two best-known songs on their 1988 breakthrough album; but the revelation was how good all the newer stuff sounded. A fresh record may be out before the end of the year, and it’s pretty much a local affair: Though Brickell lives in the New York area with husband Paul Simon, most of the New Bohemians now call Austin home, and the album was made here at Arlyn Studios.
The other wild-card was indie-folk group the Head and the Heart, closing out a run of several shows with Nelson. They seemed genuinely thrilled to be making their Picnic debut, even if die-hards who attend for Texas-steeped roots-country-rock might not have related to the Pacific Northwesterners’ vibe. But they clearly had fans in the crowd, and they may have won some more when they brought out Mickey Raphael, Willie’s harmonica ace, to join them for “10,000 Weight in Gold.”
Right down the middle of the plate, playing just before Brickell’s band, was Margo Price, whose 30-minute set lived up to and exceeded expectations. Price is the most promising new face in country music today, with the possible exception of Jason Isbell. A fireball singer with a strong backing crew, she’s become a favorite of Nelson since her 2016 Picnic debut. A blazing cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” kicked things up a notch mid-set, before a one-two-punch closer of originals: “Four Years of Chances,” a highlight from her debut album, and the moving title track to last year’s “All American Made.”
READ MORE: Our interview with Margo Price
Troubadour Ryan Bingham also is a fine fit for the Picnic, though he hadn’t played the event since its Fort Worth run many years back. Boasting a band that included not only guitar hero Jesse Dayton but powerhouse fiddler Richard Bowden, Bingham delivered arguably the finest set of the night. A class act, he brought out members of Nashville band Wild Feathers, whose set got canceled by the rain, to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with him.
And he leveled the crowd with a brand new song, perfectly fitted for the occasion, apparently titled “America.” It began: “America, America, where have we gone/ Can’t we see what we’ve become,” before proceeding to a verse about gun violence and, finally, a requiem for the American dream: “It was a dream you gave us once/ Is it not for everyone?”
Not long thereafter, the backstage was abuzz with Beto, who sat for a brief interview with Jeremy Tepper and Dallas Wayne of SiriusXM, which broadcast all of the post-rain-delay sets on its Willie’s Roadhouse channel. After the Head and the Heart’s set came the fireworks, which were given a rousing introduction by O’Rourke. The last bang of skyward pyrotechnics coincided with the first blast of guitar from Sturgill Simpson, whose hard-rockin’ outlaw-country style — plus a voice eerily reminiscent of Waylon Jennings — provided a perfect lead-in to the long-awaited Willie finale.
A couple hundred lucky fans had been treated to an intimate, invite-only Willie show the night before at downtown nightclub 3Ten, with Lukas and Micah opening. Wednesday’s set proceeded in similar fashion, with the usual opening volley of “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving” but a left-turn away from the Willie-classics medley (“Night Life,” “Crazy,” etc.) in favor of a Hank Williams montage that segued from “Jambalaya” to ” Hey Good Lookin'” to “Move It on Over.”
Inviting Ray Benson to play guitar was a nice touch given that Asleep at the Wheel’s set got rained out, and he contributed some fine solos, trading off with Bobbie Nelson’s piano runs, Raphael’s harmonica turns and more guitar leads from Willie and Lukas, who got his own vocal spotlight on the blues classic “Texas Flood.” A mid-set stretch featured some of Nelson’s finest and best-known songs, including “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “On the Road Again.”
Soon enough it was time for the weed-themed double-shot of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “It’s All Going to Pot.” Suddenly, there was Beto, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing along as Willie led the crowd through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Can O’Rourke beat Cruz in November? Time will tell, but on July Fourth, Willie made his choice clear.