"The life I love is making music with my friends/ And I can't wait to get on the road again."
Willie Nelson never could have imagined just how on-point those words would be for a pandemic-seized world when he wrote them in the late 1970s. But when Wednesday evening’s "A Night For Austin" streaming fundraiser concluded with Nelson performing from his studio in Spicewood, there was no doubt which song he would sing.
Nelson’s bittersweet longing for the life he loves was a perfect endcap for a star-studded two-hour program that featured performances by many of Austin’s most celebrated musical artists, plus a handful of outsiders who’ve long held a special place in their hearts for the city.
Foremost among the latter are Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, who brought the idea of "A Night For Austin" to Willie and Annie Nelson. Willie’s cohorts at Luck Productions, along with musical director Charlie Sexton, helped put the whole thing together, assembling prerecorded footage into a telethon-like event that was televised on CBS Austin and twitch.tv and aired by ACL Radio and KOKE on the FM dial.
More viewers from around the world tuned in via the website anightforaustin.com, many of them contributing to the cause of helping Austin cultural institutions weather the pandemic as a banner across the bottom of the screen updated the tally of their donations. Initial support from Universal Music Publishing, BMI Austin, AT&T and Brightcove had the total near $100,000 from the outset; by the end of the night, that number had reached nearly $600,000. (Contributions are still being accepted on the event’s website.)
Messages on the screen explained that 100% of donations would go to the Austin Community Foundation’s A Night for Austin Fund, which benefits six local organizations, the most prominent being Central Texas Food Bank and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. Also included are Six Square, which supports local artists and entrepreneurs of color who have suffered hardships from COVID-19; PeopleFund, which provides business loans, assistance and education to those with limited access; Southern Smoke Foundation, helping individuals in Austin’s bar and restaurant community; and the Red River Cultural District, a coalition of mostly downtown venues that have been deeply affected by coronavirus shutdowns. (One prominent RRCD venue, Barracuda, announced Wednesday that it is closing permanently.)
Nelson and Simon were focal points for a program that included many memorable performances. Willie gave a short introductory speech about Austin’s reputation as a live music mecca and the importance of "keeping Austin weird," followed by Simon serving up his 1970s hit "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" with wife Brickell popping in for a mid-song whistling solo. (Simon and Brickell recently bought a home in the Austin area; Brickell is a Dallas native, and many of her New Bohemians bandmates now live in or near Austin.)
Simon and Nelson returned at the end, Paul playing his 1966 Simon & Garfunkel standard "Homeward Bound" before Willie took the show home with "On the Road Again." Between the hosts’ bookends, more than two dozen artists offered songs and messages of hope. Occasional footage of beloved Austin haunts provided a poignant reminder of the event’s mission: It was hard not to feel emotional as images of Sam’s BBQ, Deep Eddy Cabaret, Donn’s Depot, Waterloo Records and other iconic local businesses rolled by onscreen.
Three performances were delivered from essentially empty venues, underscoring the pandemic’s effect on Austin’s live music scene. Gary Clark Jr. played "The Governor," from last year’s Grammy-winning album "This Land," at Antone’s, the iconic downtown blues club of which he is part-owner. (When the small handful of crew members in the room applauded at the end, Clark said sincerely, "Thanks for clapping, I’ve been all by myself playing. Made me feel good.") Ray Benson brought an abbreviated Asleep at the Wheel, with fiddler Katie Shore and bassist Josh Hoag, to the Broken Spoke, which recently reopened. And blues great Jimmie Vaughan performed at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul with his Tilt-A-Whirl Band, its members spread out beyond the stage to the venue’s floor per social-distancing needs.
Other musical highlights included:
— Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, singing "Just Outside of Austin" in a euphorically idyllic setting, complete with live oak trees, cacti, a wood-rail fence and deep blue sky that perfectly visualized the song’s title;
— Black Pumas principals Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada hitting a deeply soulful nerve with "Colors," one of the best songs on the 2019 debut album that earned them a Grammy Best New Artist nomination;
— A mini-Arc Angels reunion between Sexton and his former bandmate Doyle Bramhall II, singing and playing together from separate locations in split-screen format;
— James Taylor giving a special nod to Simon with a cover of the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel classic "America";
— Spoon’s Britt Daniel, who performed "Rainy Taxi" from 2014’s "They Want My Soul" in a room bathed with red light while keyboardist Alex Fischel accompanied on keyboards via laptop from Los Angeles;
— Conjunto favorites Los Texmaniacs backing up San Antonio legends Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers in separate performances;
— David Ramirez, who won over new fans when he took part in the Luck Reunion livestream in March, playing a new song called "Easy Does It" that will be on his new album due out next month;
— Simon and Brickell singing together joyfully on the Bobbettes’ 1950s doo-wop ditty "Mr. Lee" (with Edie serving up a sweet mid-song solo on a guitar she got from local instrument maker Collings);
— Shawn Colvin wisely choosing Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s "Lovers in a Dangerous Time," its theme a good fit for the pandemic era;
— Actor Ethan Hawke and his daughter Indiana playing a song together (Hawke was one of several non-musicians who provided occasional narrative breaks throughout, along with Renee Zellweger, Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, the Saxon Pub’s Joe Ables and BMI Austin’s Mitch Ballard).
More performances came from Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt with Boz Scaggs, Patty Griffin, Vince Gill, Norah Jones, Alejandro Escovedo, Terry Allen, Ryan Bingham, Jerry Douglas, Kalu & the Electric Joint, and a solo piano tune from Brickell.
There are no current plans for the program to be rebroadcast or archived online, a representative for the organizers said Thursday, adding: "Artists were assured that this would be the first and final showing, and that they will own their content immediately after."