By S. Pulse
When you buy a ticket to a “Willie Nelson and Friends” event you don’t always know what’s in store, but you do know for certain that it will include wonderful and unexpected surprises. This was indeed the case with “To Willie: A Birthday Celebration” held on his Luck Ranch, just outside of Austin last weekend. The event was presented by Luck Presents and The Next Waltz. As the event drew closer, more names were added to the roster of performers.
On show day, concert goers were treated to a mountain of talent that included Sheryl Crow, Nathaniel Rateliff, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Earle, Margo Price, Robert Earl Keen, Vincent Neil Merson, Bruce Robison, Kevin Russell (Shinyribs), pianist Emily Gimble and Matthew Houck. Note that the musical guests in did not appear in a promotional function, but are, indeed, actual friends of Willie. Each artist carved out time from their busy touring schedules to make their way to Luck to honor their genuine, kind, and generous friend Willie Nelson on his 89th birthday.
(You can see all our event photos on Austin 101).
As the sun started to set, a breeze cooled the crowd and the rain held off, making for a magical night beneath billowing clouds in the sky over Luck. East Texas singer-songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson opened the show with a performance of “Bloody Mary Morning” with support from the celebration’s host and musical artist Bruce Robison. Emerson would return later in the program to sing “Devil in a Sleeping Bag.”
Following the opening number, the jovial Robison explained that the show would be presented in two-parts: Willie’s friends performing some of their favorite Willie tunes followed by a performance by Willie himself. Robison let the audience know that each artist selected the songs they would perform from Willie’s extensive catalogue (a deck of songs written by Willie as well as some of his signature tunes). Robison admitted that some songs were assigned because he “just wanted to hear it.” Regardless of how the songs were allocated, Robison and the Luck team curated the show beautifully with both artists and concert goers pleased with the array of tunes presented.
Robert Earl Keen, looking quite dapper in a suit and tie, helped emcee the evening sharing clever quips along the way. Over the course of the night, Keen performed “Pick Up the Tempo” and later returned to sing “Hello Walls,” a song that Keen said was “one of the first songs I learned on guitar.” Keen also performed “Me and Paul,” the ode to the perils of partying on the road about Willie’s exploits with his friend the late drummer Paul English.
Concert goers were thrilled by the appearance of chartbuster Sheryl Crow and roared with excitement as she took the stage. She performed the heart wrenching song of reunited old loves, “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Later, she returned to the stage commenting that “Willie wrote the soundtrack to my life,” before singing the blues ballad “Night Life.” While the night life might not be a good life, we were glad Crow was present on this night.
Another crowd favorite was Willie’s good friend and frequent Luck visitor Nathaniel Rateliff. His rendition of “Crazy” was delivered with velvety smooth vocals that hushed the crowd. He also performed “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” with equally impressive vocals. Later in the evening, the audience clapped along to Rateliff as he sang “Happy Birthday Willie,” a song he composed as a special birthday tune for Willie several years ago.
When fellow outlaw Ray Wylie Hubbard took the stage, the audience new it would be special. He performed “Whiskey River” followed by the beautiful “Stone Blind Horses;” a tune made popular by his duet with Willie. As an added treat, Willie’s part was performed by his daughter, musician Amy Lee Nelson. Hubbard proved to be as feisty and talented as ever.
Margo Price, fresh off her performance at Stagecoach Festival the night before, performed an energetic rendition of “Shotgun Willie.” Later she reappeared on the stage to sing “Sister’s Coming Home,” dedicating the song to the late Bobbie Nelson. Price, an honorary member of the extended Nelson family, also had the honor, later in the evening, to sing “Happy Birthday” to Willie at the beginning of his set.
Fellow singer-songwriter Steve Earle performed “Local Memory,” a song which Earle also recorded. In addition, Earle had the honor of performing the classic Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson tune “Pancho and Lefty,” a song written by the late Austin songwriting luminary Townes Van Zandt. Earle noted that he also recorded the tune and was instrumental in bringing the song to Willie’s attention and we are so glad he did.
Showman Kevin Russell (Shinyribs) gave a rousing performance of “Gotta Get Drunk,” and we would definitely “call him honey” after seeing his dancing skills on stage. The crowd went wild watching his fluid knees float beneath him as he sidled across the stage. He later returned to the stage to perform “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”
The evening’s host, Bruce Robison performed “How Will I Know.” He then ceded the floor to backing vocalists Jamie Lin Wilson and Kelley Mickwee who took center stage to perform “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” Wilson later sang “The Last Thing I Needed” with Robison.
In addition to these talented vocalists, other musicians supporting this cavalcade of artists included the talented pianist Emily Gimble, granddaughter of the legendary fiddler Jimmy Gimble. She took the lead on “Down Yonder” and delivered several solos during the evening, as did steel guitar aficionado Geoff Queen.
Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck performed the raucous “Reasons to Quit” followed by the tune Willie once used to close his shows, “The Party’s Over.”
But, the party was not over. In all, Willie’s friends delivered over two dozen songs including a joint rendition of “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” in tribute to Willie. Each of these performances, however, were but a build up for the main event; a performance by Willie himself. Some may have worried that after delivering two back-to-back performances with George Strait on the previous nights, that Willie may have become fatigued. They would be wrong. He sat center stage holding his mangled old guitar “Trigger” and launched into “Whiskey River” with his familiar voice sounding clear and strong. His guitar skills are also as sharp as ever. While “Trigger” may look worse for the wear, Willie can still make it hum. This was particularly evident on “Still Moving.” By the time he got to “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” the crowd was buzzing and knew they were seeing something special: Willie enjoying himself with talented friends in his own backyard. He played over 20 of his memorable songs closing the set with “It’s Hard to be Humble”. You never knew 89 could be so cool!
Happy Birthday Willie.
See all our Bday Celebration photos at Austin 101.
Stay All Night Stay a Little Longer
Still is Still Moving To Me
Bloody Mary Morning
Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always on My Mind
Move It On Over
Georgia On My Mind
Georgia on a Fast Train
Write Your Own Songs
I Never Cared for You
I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die
Good Hearted Woman
Hands on the Wheel
Hey Good Lookin’
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
Funny How Time Slips Away/Crazy/Night Life
Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away
It’s Hard to be Humble