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Willie shows the way to close iTunes Fest

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 16, 2014

Willie Nelson shows aren’t much like a box of chocolates; you usually know what you’re gonna get. From “Whiskey River” at the start to a medley including such classics as “Crazy” and “Night Life” to classy piano runs from Bobbie Nelson and bluesy harmonica solos from Mickey Raphael, it’s more ritual than revelation, but it’s a ritual that’s sacred to Austin audiences – even during SXSW.

If anything felt different during the “festival-within-a-festival) iTunes Fest at ACL Live – a.k.a. The House That Willie Built (with the statue outside to prove it) – it was the spruced-up, high-tech set dressing, which included a huge video backdrop that at times showed an iconic artistic rendering of Nelson. Apple used such sets to make its presence known in the venue this week, but the company ywisely resisted the temptation to overpromote its products, counting on the musical experiences to carry the message.

A couple of nice bonuses in Nelson’s set with his Family Band: Willie’s son Lukas stepped out front on guitar for the bluesy Stevie Ray Vaughan nod “Floodin’ Down in Texas,” and the classic “Will You Remember Mine” received a nice duet reading with Lily Meola (per their recording of the song on the 2013 album “Too All the Girls).” The crowd went wild when he wrapped things up with the new tune “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” followed by a cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.” There may be better ways to close out SXSW than with Willie, but not many.

Keith Urban would not be one of them, though the congenial Down Under country pop star’s headlining set was a clear crowd-pleaser for some, if over-the-top for the old-school Nelson faithful. Focusing on songs from his 2013 album “Fuse,” Urban played to Austin’s underground spirit by taking the stage in a black Daniel Johnston “Hi, How Are You” T-shirt. (Though he didn’t go so far as to cover “Walking the Cow.”)