The Fourth of July has come and gone and with a little time to reflect, I can say that my 19th Willie Nelson Picnic fits squarely in the “good” category. There were few surprises, few disappointments. Safe, predictable and expensive are a comfort to a Picnic in its last days.
Here are 10 things I learned about Willie Nelson’s 2017 Fourth of July Picnic ...
1. MIDNIGHT WRITER: I should have gotten this higher in my review, but Sheryl Crow pulling out Lukas Nelson, then Willie to jam with her on a set-ending “Midnight Rider” was easily the big moment of the day. It is very rare for Willie to join anyone during the Picnic these days, happening now only twice in the last decade. I also should have noted that the song was likely a tribute to the late Gregg Allman, who died a little over a month ago.
2. WILLIE & FAMILY & FRIENDS: Last year’s closing set by Willie just never felt quite right, ending off-kilter without the traditional bring-out-the-stars for the country standards singalong. This year was back to normal, with Jamey Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Margo Price and Steve Earle among the stars singing along to “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw The Light” and that new Willie gospel favorite “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
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3. COTA REPORT: Construction in the grassy area where the “plaza” stage had been in 2015 and 2016 forced the Austin360 Amphitheater to move that stage significantly farther away from the “pavilion” stage. It made it a tiresome hike if you wanted to stand up front for Ray Wylie Hubbard, hoof it over to see Lukas Nelson, then back again to the main stage for Hayes Carll — all during the hottest part of the day (and the concrete setting didn’t help the fans at the plaza stage, for that matter). This was offset a little by setting up the VIP lounge over the water feature — or a lot, if you were trusting enough to get in the water.
4. PAPERS PLEASE: It’s annoying enough that in order to stand in front of the stage, you have to buy a nearly $100 “GA Pit” ticket. Or that your seat ticket won’t let you go stand up front, if the spirit moves you (got to have that GA Pit pink wristband). But was it really necessary to be poked by a venue employee just before Willie’s set and asked firmly for my “credentials”? “What!?” I said, genuinely confused. Then, after a second, “I have a pink wristband... “ “That’s your credentials,” she replied with an exasperated sarcasm. As if my pink wristband would, you know, give me access to secret documents or allow me to brief the ambassador. A simple “let me see your wristband” would have been fine and forgotten by now.
5. BUSH LEAGUE: While I’m being critical, the biggest flub of the day happened when the sound guys at the plaza stage allowed country legend Johnny Bush to sing two songs with no vocals going out to the crowd. He could hear himself on his monitors, but we couldn’t hear anything. They fixed it, eventually, but it tarnished the moment. That is no way to treat a man who should be one of the Picnic’s most respected longtime performers.
6. SNAKES ALIVE: I realize that I have a ridiculous musical crush on the song “Snake Farm.” I’m not getting better. The CD stays in the car. My children know the words. But seeing an agitated Steve Earle thunder through “Copperhead Road” live at the Picnic was even better. My personal favorite song of the day.
7. CARLL V. EARLE: It was my first time seeing Hayes Carll and really my first time to see Steve Earle (not counting a personally discombobulated night at La Zona Rosa in the early 2000s). Personally, I suspect the frequently obnoxiously outspoken Earle was more bitter divorcee and less music critic when he insulted Carll (now in a relationship with Earle’s ex-wife Allison Moorer) in a recent interview — but Carll took it personally enough to sing us a new song that was obviously about Earle. “I think she left you because you wouldn’t shut your mouth,” he sang. It was the “oh, snap!” moment of the day and would’ve been pretty crushing in a more intimate setting. At the Picnic, however, Earle didn’t need to say anything personal at all to take the day — his hard-charging set absolutely buried Carll’s.
8. KNOW YOUR LIMITS: I decided early on that my Picnic stories would not be about the heat. It’s Texas. It’s the Fourth of July. It’s going to be hot. But I have to feel bad for some of the fans who were clearly unprepared for 100 degrees and 8 hours of sun — some being taken to the medical tent on the EMS cart, others just miserable. The fact is, this event is not for everyone. If you don’t have an opportunity to acclimatize to the heat before the Fourth or the sense to drink water at every opportunity, then you should probably sit the Picnic out. Kudos to Austin360 Amphitheater for providing us with misters, shade stations and two water bottle refilling stations and keeping them full of cold (or at least cool) water.
9. WELCOME REINFORCEMENT: Jamey Johnson first performed at the Picnic in 2010 and hasn’t missed one since. He has become an integral part of the show and a crucial new (relatively) face in the dwindling “Picnic regulars” club. Last year’s set was likely the strongest of the day and this year was nearly as good.
10. PICNIC TRADITIONS: I heard “Whiskey River” twice, sang along with “Redneck Mother” for the 19th time, found someone who started going to the Picnics in the 1970s, got annoyed at long set-up times on the main stage, got annoyed at Kinky Friedman, ate a preposterously-priced barbecue sandwich and spotted roadie legend Ben Dorcy. It was a good day.