Willie’s Picnic Reboots

by: Doug Freeman

2020 meant to reset Willie Nelson’s annual July 4 Picnic. The daylong fest scheduled a return to his Luck Ranch in Spicewood after five years at the unforgivingly hot Circuit of the Americas. Matt Bizar and Nelson grandniece Ellee Fletcher Durniak taking over production as Luck Presents pointed tradition into decade five with youthful reinvigoration.

Instead, the Picnic flipped to a virtual format, yet still managed to provide a day of exceptional music to soundtrack the Fourth of July.

Credit the Luck Presents team for quickly pioneering new streaming modes as soon as the effects of the pandemic shut down live music events. In March, their Luck Reunion Livestream ’Til Further Notice offered the first major post-COVID effort to transfer a multi-hour, multi-artist event online. They followed with the wonderfully haphazard Come & Toke It on April 20, and June’s star-stacked benefit A Night for Austin broadcast on television.

photo: Doug Freeman

Willie’s Picnic offered yet another experiment for the crew, combining live performances from the Luck Ranch with recorded video performances, and then a pre-recorded two-hour finale of artists jamming remotely with an in-person house band led by Charlie Sexton. The promoters also charged for the streaming event for the first time, with ticket access at $45 on the day of the show.

Everyone leaned whole-heartedly into the virtual conceit, beginning with the house band in Luck’s Saloon surrounding an antique TV that screened the piped-in artists. In a feat of pure 2020 meta moments, fans watched a screen of a screen of a screen, with the footlights of the stage reflecting on the television just to add to the sense that everything was occurring in real time. It worked like gangbusters, too.

Not all went off without a hitch, however – or rather a glitch.

Rounding into the final 30 minutes, Sheryl Crow’s version of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” turned into a Max Headroom remix that scattered and skipped through the McCrary Sisters’ contribution before resetting back to Crow unsuccessfully. Thankfully, the closing set with Willie and a masked Family Band inside Pedernales Studio regrouped, and the production team quickly worked to make all the performances available online.

Until Crow, the stream proved both spectacular and flawless. Nelson scions Lukas and Micah hosted the five-hour live portion from the Luck Clubhouse with rambling, informal, and at times hilariously stoned segues between the live sets and recorded video inserts.

Charley Crockett’s impeccable country ballads and high-sliding banter (“Even if you ain’t got a dime, you can support Charley Crockett and the boys just by paying attention”) kicked the show into gear with a breathless 40-minute set from the Saloon stage. The Peterson Brothers then raised holy hell in the tiny Luck Chapel with smoking blues and funk riffs. Shakey Graves rolled the bones solo atop his suitcase kickdrum, dishing latest timely track “Look Alive” before rising Ft. Worth songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson justified hype back in the Chapel.

Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel closed out the live block with the full eight-piece band prior to Lukas and Micah bidding adieu with a gorgeous rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

To tie together the two-hour finale, the team threaded an oral history of Willie Picnics through the performances. Nathaniel Rateliff kicked off with “Whiskey River” as interviews with Freddy Fletcher, Turk Pipkin, Mickey Raphael, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and others began laying out the often chaotic early years of the event. Robert Earl Keen offered the highlight of these reminiscences with the legendary tale of his car catching fire in the parking lot of the 1974 picnic, followed by a great performance of “Dreadful Selfish Crime.”

The stars rolled through their single song offerings backed by Sexton’s House Band: Beau Bedford, John Michael Schoepf, Ricky Ray Jackson, and Joshua Blue. Some dealt requisite Willie set covers (Devon Gilfillian with “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and Particle Kid’s tripped-up “Goodnight Irene”), with the best being Ziggy Marley rastafizing “On the Road Again” (“Like a band of rastas, we go down the aiway!”). Hits from Lyle Lovett (“Farther Down the Line”), Hubbard (“Redneck Mother”), and Steve Earle (“So You Wannabe an Outlaw”) fed into the historical arch.

Kinky Friedman and Jon Doe joined the house band in person, the former for his recent “I Only Love You When It Rains” and the latter kicking out X’s “Burning House of Love.” Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck delivered a great take on “City of New Orleans” as Raphael huffed harmonica rhythm from a side television set. Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers paid homage to Willie’s late roadie legend on “Ode to Ben Dorcey,” while Lukas streamed in his band Promise of the Real for a socially distant cover of “Woodstock.”

Willie’s closing finale proved uniquely spectacular once the glitches corrected. With Lukas, Micah, and Sister Bobbie anchoring the local five-piece, and Raphael streaming in as needed, Willie cut through a medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life” as well as “Good Hearted Woman” and “I Never Cared for You.” The performances played out tight, spirited, heartfelt, and fun, especially when Lukas scatted Roger Miller’s “You Don’t Want My Love.”

Although the show ended abruptly at 11pm with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” instead of traditional closer “I’ll Fly Away/Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” by that point fireworks and other flammables had been adequately sparked. Ideally, next year will convene the Picnic once again in-person, but in the meantime, Willie Nelson and Luck Presents continue creating and pulling off innovative ways to keep the music flowing.

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