A clump of nouveau flower children stood outside a purple bus in the parking lot with index fingers raised, a plea for spare tickets. Three shirtless college-age men in cowboy hats blasted David Allan Coe songs from a Jeep. A middle-age couple in matching Lone Star flag running shorts hopped off a trailer selling "$1 hayrides" from the camping area to the front gate. The sound of Johnny Bush singing "Whiskey River" intertwined with a dreadlocked conga player, who had a sign asking for gas money.
Two concert traditions converged Friday off Texas 71 in Spicewood, as Willie Nelson's 30th anniversary Fourth of July Picnic attracted Central Texas' usual outlaw-country crowd as well as the traveling freak show known as the Deadheads. In the process, the new Two River Canyon Amphitheatre was baptized when a downpour forced fans to huddle under the misting tent for shelter.
Meanwhile, thousands stewed in traffic that backed up for miles from the venue's entrance. It was as if the Deadheads, out to see their heroes on tour for the first time since Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia died in 1995, all decided to come at the same time.
One of the vehicles choked in the traffic was a tour bus, which may have explained why popular Austin singer Pat Green missed his slot. That led to a one-hour gap before the Dead took the stage just after 6 p.m. with "Let the Good Times Roll." (Green played a make-up set at 10:15 p.m., and announced, "That was the longest 34 miles I've ever been through in my whole life.")
Peeved Dead fans Linda and Rick Diehlman of Austin were stuck in traffic for almost four hours and missed more than half the band's set. "We've waited for this for months, " Linda said. "We're here for the Dead and only the Dead."
What a difference a couple of hours made. Fans who arrived before noon were rewarded with short or nonexistent waits. As always, Nelson was a constant presence. His duet with Kimmie Rhodes on "Love Me Like a Song" was an early highlight.
"Water, " promoter Tim O'Connor was heard advising a friend early in the afternoon. "Drink plenty of water all day long."
In a case of "be careful what you wish for, " the rain came right before Merle Haggard's 2:15 p.m. set. With plastic covering the equipment, the show went on, after roadies drained the water from a sagging stage covering.
"We have 8,000 winners in our wet T-shirt contest, " show emcee Bob Cole joked. "Unfortunately, half of them are men." The rain put most of the crowd in good spirits; some even cheered with each thunder clap. After all, this was the first Willie Picnic in which heatstroke, dehydration and sunburn weren't top concerns since the Southpark Meadows deluge of 1985.
"Want to go for a swim, Willie?" a Dead soundman joked as Nelson waited to go onstage with Haggard. When the legendary pair emerged, the crowd, clearly enjoying the unexpected bath, was a sea of gleeful faces.
By the time the Dead came on at 6 p.m., the bowl area in front of the stage was completely packed. People walking up to the vending area and bathrooms were forced to make their way along rocky and muddy inclines. More than a few slipped on these narrow trails. "It's definitely rough and tumble, " said Jeremy Summer, 28. "But that makes it kind of fun."
"Anyone caught selling anything will be fully prosecuted, " a sign in the parking lot warned. Just yards away, a woman named Margo yelled out, "Cold Budweiser! Jager shots! A buck a piece!" Margo remarked that at other Dead concerts, vendors were more plentiful. "It's kind of a drag that they're trying to crack down here, " she said. "The parking lot scene is half the fun. This doesn't feel as much like a Dead concert."
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission was a full-on bummer to some fans, writing 20-25 tickets for fake IDs and still more for marijuana smoking, according to Sgt. Jimmy Zuehlke. The only TABC arrest by 5 p.m. was for felony drug possession. As of 9 p.m., the Burnet County sheriff's department had arrested 10 people for drug and alcohol offenses, according to chief deputy W.T. Smith. In addition, there were at least 11 citations for Class C misdemeanors, such as minor possession of drugs and public intoxication.
The medical tent treated about 50 people before 9 p.m., mostly for sprains, cuts and dehydration. "We probably would have had a significant number of more patients if not for the moderate weather, " said Jeffrey Lienen, an ER doctor who was working in the medical tent.
Rain and traffic jams aside, Two River Canyon came as advertised: an idyllic Hill Country setting and the perfect frame for Willie's as-annual-as-possible tribute to Texas and America. "It took us 30 years to find this place, " Nelson's road manager Poodie Locke said as he looked out at a jubilant, drenched crowd. "I think the Picnic's found a new home."
It's not a home without its problems. Organizers have another year to work out the kinks and address complaints, including those of unhappy campers who arrived on the site to find that spaces weren't assigned; they had to set up wherever they could.
"We had reserved four spaces, and they only had us down for one, " said Charlie Ardoin of Wimberley. "It was totally chaotic." Also bristling Friday was an Austin couple who'd been woken up at 1:30 a.m. and told to move. "They said we were in a fire zone and had to move in the morning, then when we woke up there were folks camped all around us." About 4,000 people camped out on the ridge overlooking Two River Canyon.
"It's our first time, " said Deana Herbert, who owns the 800-acre ranch with brother James and operated the campgrounds. "We're learning a lot. We'll get better."