Live performances. Filmed performances. Carefully edited remote collaborations. Historic recollections. Recipes for barbecue and cocktails. Public service announcements. Technical difficulties. But no heat stroke, concession lines or traffic jams.
Willie Nelson’s first-ever virtual 4th of July Picnic was, as expected, unlike any other that had come before. If you thought you’d seen it all in Picnic lore since the storied event’s early-1970s beginnings, well, this was something entirely different.
It was nobody’s preference to pull the plug on an in-person Picnic. But everyone has adapted during the coronavirus pandemic, most definitely including Nelson and his Luck Productions team. Their learning curve for presenting virtual music events began in March with the annual Luck Reunion, which shifted online after events during South by Southwest week were called off. Then came an April 20 "Come and Toke It" event, and last month’s "A Night For Austin" fundraiser spearheaded by Willie’s friends Paul Simon and Edie Brickell.
Reinventing the Picnic for pandemic times was no small challenge. For starters: Unlike those previous free streams, this one was ticketed. Fans paid $35-$45 to watch the stream via williepicnic.com, with access to all the footage continuing through July 11. That extended access became a key factor late Saturday, when a garbled streaming feed marred the performances of the show’s final three acts — including Nelson and his Family band.
So if this first seemed to be the rare Picnic that might end comfortably before midnight, for many it ended up carrying over into Sunday. I gave up on the dysfunctional feed around 10:45 p.m., but happily found that when I logged back into the site again on Sunday morning, the terrific final stretch featuring Sheryl Crow (singing Willie’s beautiful "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground"), the McCrary Sisters (doing the Staple Singers’ classic "I’ll Take You There"), and finally Willie’s half-hour set from his Pedernales Recording Studio all came through clean and clear.
Nelson’s performance was shorter than his usual Picnic sets, but it was quite enjoyable. Beginning with the medley of his career-establishing 1960s classics "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Night Life," the set rolled on with more favorites old and new, including "Good Hearted Woman," "I Never Cared for You" and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
A spotlight on sister Bobbie Nelson’s piano runs, plus a tune featuring son Lukas Nelson, underscored the family element of the proceedings. Lukas’s brother Micah, who appeared earlier with his psychedelic band Particle Kid, played drums for the first Picnic since the death of Willie’s longtime drummer Paul English in February. Upright bassist Kevin Smith rounded out the in-studio lineup, with Nelson’s ever-present harmonica sidekick Mickey Raphael appearing on a TV set in the corner, beaming in his parts from afar.
A little more about that supplemental-TV technology, because it was a big part of how the Picnic’s two-hour finale functioned. Event organizers had been slightly unclear about procedural details beforehand, and that turned out to be because it’s kind of hard to explain.
Here’s how it worked:
1) A house band performing on the saloon stage at Willie’s Luck TX ranch outside Austin laid down instrumental tracks, with Austin singer Jonathan Terrell at the back of the room (but not in the camera shot) to provide a reference vocal track.
2) The instrumental tracks were then sent electronically to the participating guests, who recorded their vocal parts and sent them back.
3) Film and sound editors then spliced it all together. The video portion was superimposed, picture-in-picture style, on an old Magnavox cabinet-style TV that had been placed at the center of the stage while the house band recorded its parts.
Thus we watched the five-piece band, led by keyboardist Beau Bedford of Dallas band the Texas Gentlemen and featuring Austin ace Charlie Sexton on guitar, backing everyone from likely Picnic suspects such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett to more left-field additions such as Ziggy Marley, Kurt Vile and Devon Gilfillian. A second TV cabinet on the side of the stage occasionally offered up harmonica solos from Raphael as well.
A few acts forewent the house-band interactions. Jamey Johnson’s rendition of "America the Beautiful" was a simple live video of Johnson performing with his own band from their remote location. Edie Brickell’s duet with Nelson, "Sing to Me, Willie," was added just by playing the video she’d released on Willie’s 87th birthday a couple of months ago. Lukas Nelson brought aboard his band, Promise of the Real, by assembling a multipanel Zoom-style video combo, each musician recording their parts at their respective home bases.
Austin-area performers John Doe and Kinky Friedman actually came out to Luck and performed live onstage with the house band, which also included bassist John Michael Schoepf, drummer Joshua Blue and steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson. Other singers whose parts aired on the TV alongside the band included Steve Earle, Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen, Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent and Colorado’s Nathaniel Rateliff, whose kickoff rendition of Johnny Bush’s "Whiskey River" rivaled Marley’s spirited "On the Road Again" for best Willie-centric tribute.
(Sadly missing was Nashville country star Margo Price, who’d been listed in the lineup; the closing credits indicated she had performed Leon Russell’s magnificent "A Song for You," though it did not appear anywhere in the show that aired on Saturday. An event representative said Sunday that Price’s song will be added back into the on-demand replay of the video that’s available to ticket-buyers through July 11.)
But all of that was only the last two hours. The Picnic livestream began around 3 p.m. with a "Prime Cuts" cooking show featuring Salt Lick chef Scott Roberts plus a couple of acoustic songs by Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson, who returned later with his full band to close out a four-hour stretch of live performances from the saloon and chapel stages at Luck (an old Western film set built on Willie’s ranch decades ago for the movie "Red Headed Stranger").
RELATED: We watched ’Red Headed Stranger’ on the film set with Willie Nelson
Other on-site live performances came from Shakey Graves, who hearkened back to his original one-man-band setup, complete with kick-drum suitcase, in a moving seven-song set from the saloon; recent Austin360 Artist of the Month the Peterson Brothers, who rocked out in the chapel with joyful blues-funk grooves; Fort Worth’s Vincent Neil Emerson, a sleeper pick on the bill who delivered an enjoyable 10-song solo set that included a song about Austin music venue the White Horse; and Charley Crockett, who kicked things off with a rousing full-band performance in the saloon.
Interspersed between those live sets were a handful of taped performances presented by BMI, the performance rights organization that opened an office in Austin last year. Those one-offs actually provided some of the Picnic’s best musical moments, from Los Coast frontman Trey Privott’s moving rendition of Sam Cooke’s "A Change Is Gonna Come" to Wagoneers/Dangerous Few leader Monte Warden’s forlorn ballad "Anything But Love" to Gina Chavez’s high-energy dance number "Let It Out." Best of all was the War and Treaty, aka Nashville couple Michael and Tanya Trotter, whose original tune "We Are One" was a spendidly soulful expression of uplifting unity.
Also filling the gaps between segments were Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah, who took breaks from games of pool and dominoes at Luck headquarters to offer up offbeat insights. (Example: "The founding fathers played dominoes really high, just like us.") Their banter wore thin before long. More enlightening was a series of excerpts from a recent interview with Nelson and producer Buddy Cannon with Willie’s daughter Paula Nelson for the Sirius XM "Willie’s Roadhouse" channel. Their conversations helped flesh out details about Willie’s new album "First Rose of Spring," which came out Friday.
RELATED: Willie Nelson looks back, and forward, with ’First Rose of Spring’
A handful of short ads also aired, some for sponsors but most of them PSA-style clips for event beneficiaries Central Texas Food Bank, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, the SIMS Foundation, Six Square and the United Way for Greater Austin. A portion of each ticket sold was earmarked for those organizations via the Austin Community Foundation.
At the end, Willie appeared again for a brief and hopeful closing statement. "Maybe next year we can go back to Dripping Springs or somewhere like that," he said, referencing the Hill Country town that was the site of the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion and 1973’s first-ever Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic. "But in the meantime, stay safe."