Going strong since 1972, (this is the 49th one)- it’s a new year for this music fest and filled with hope of coming out of a rough time. Willie Nelson brought his legendary annual picnic back in person in Austin for the first time in 2 years. This time, at the beautiful new Austin FC’s Q2 stadium. It’s a big move from its previous Circuit of the Americas home and much easier to get to for many. Those that didn’t score tickets could also listen live on the Willie’s Roadhouse channel on Sirius.
The lineup of 10 bands brought Willie’s friends together with some amazing additions like Allison Russell (who also performed at this year’s Luck Reunion) and Tyler Childers, along with staples Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, and Asleep at the Wheel. The 11-hour or so festival took Austin fun to the next level.
Asleep at the Wheel- Texas legends Ray Benson and his band always like to kick off festivals (like ACL Fest) and do it in style. They played fan favorites and showed off Benson’s famous deep, deep voice. Our fave thing he said today was, “When Matthew McConaughey started driving a Lincoln, everything fell apart”.
Steve Earle- with lots of guitar swapping (we love the mandolin) this icon, one of the original outlaw musicians, has been doing his thing for decades and was a must-have on the schedule. Earle has been busy touring and has given hints of retirement this year. His band, The Dukes (w/ many Texans), were awesome and the synth bagpipes sound had the crowd stunned that it sounded so real when it rolled into mega hit Copperhead Road. His violinist and bassist were key features in the set. Besides crowd faves, a highlight was a sweet Jerry Jeff Walker cover Mr. Bojangles.
Particle Kid- The youngest of Willie’s sons has been coming into his own lately with more alt rock/experimental & really cool guitar riffs that included an awesome rendition of America the Beautiful. Plus amazing pickers, one who did a handstand on stage between songs. Some maybe couldn’t appreciate it, but we’ve seen Micah find his voice and his own way. Decked out in Richard Pryor t-shirt, gold cape, black jeans, and facial hair- he is creative and unique. He ended the set with a 5 minute-ish chant of lyric “Life” over and over with some fist-up woots and yelps.
Charley Crockett- This Texan has that Elvis vibe and watching him is always something special. He’s been blowing up for good reason. He gave a shout out to Austin’s James Hand saying, “We wouldn’t be here without him”. Crockett talked about playing on the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter and then blew right into ‘Mason Street Blues’. “Shout out to my band that makes a cowboy look good”. Always grinning and decked out in classic head-to-toe Cowboy garb-Crockett is a must see.
Midland- Some of the best fun of the day was during this set which not only included their huge hits, but also decent covers including Eddie Rabbitt’s ‘Drivin My Life Away’ and Tom Petty’s ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ (which bumped them up a notch in our book). They shared they were glad to be home and were hungover after hanging out with Brothers Osborne the night before. Their massive sound with 5 guitars really stood out.
Brothers Osborne- who never disappoint was a great addition the fest and have braved backlash recently for just being themselves. They kicked off their set with rocking ‘Skeletons’ and said “Dierks (Bentley) asked us to sing this one. If you don’t know the words, just dance your ass off”. The brothers band added to a great sound and we loved the giddyup on ‘Dead Man’s Curve’. They played other hits like ‘Shoot Me Straight’ and ‘Burning Man’.
Allison Russell- A Canadian, and only female on the ticket (hmmm) & all-female band that kicked ass- an amazing addition, full of soul, speaks the truth about life & inspires everyone. “I slept in a cemetery as a child, now I’m surrounded by goddesses playing the Willie Nelson Picnic. If you had told me that, I wouldn’t have believed it. Things do get better”. Then she rolled into hit ‘Persephone’. She’s humble and gracious, always gives a shout out to Jason Isbell who put her on hi stour and changed her life. She also brought her partner Jason up to sing (who wrote most of the songs on her album).
Tyler Childers– From Kentucky, was high on the bill for a reason- all the young kids love him and his mix of old country and bluegrass is a fresh sound. Constantly on the road due to the huge success of his breakout album, Tyler’s sound comes from classic rock his dad liked, and 80’s country-you can hear it throughout the set- a cool combo. Childers played many of his hits.
Jason Isbell- one of the staples now on Willie’s event rosters- it’s no surprise he was almost at the top of the bill (Willie is always the headliner). Deeply committed to his craft and known for great lyrics and racking up many awards, Isbell has proven why he’s so deserving and why his band, the 400 unit is one of the best around. He played crowd faves ’24 Frames’ and ‘Dreamsicle’ and he too covered Tom Petty with epic ‘American Girl’. We love that we can claim him as an Austin-ite now.
Next, of course, a massive fireworks display went on just before Willie’s set in honor of the 4th of July night.
Willie Nelson- Willie came out in a US Men’s Soccer Team Jersey with the number 420 on, to great applause. You know he’d likely been on his bus smoking during all the openers, right?
Of course he played a packed set with some of his hits like ‘Whiskey River’, ‘Always on My Mind’, and ‘On The Road Again’. For the big finale, Nelson brought on Micah and some of his friends to perform such as Ray Benson, Kenny Smith, Billy English, Mickey Raphael. Noticeably absent were other family members like Lukas.
Nelson had one more surprise when he had Texas’ Beto O’Rourke join him on stage who played as part of the band for ‘On the Road Again’.
The event wasn’t sold out, it seats about 20,000 but it was perfect that fans could roam around to find seats in the shade when the sun hit their seats much of the day (Austin’s been in a drought with record heat over 100 degrees regularly since May).
As the first concert at the venue, we were impressed with how smooth and safe it all was. Wondering if this will be the long-term location for the annual event. We were happy there was plenty of shade and indoor areas with AC to cool off between sets. If you can bear the heat, this is a bucket-list must for any music lover around Austin and beyond. Many came from out of state. (And yes, we looked for Matthew McConaughey but didn’t see him).
See all our concert photos from the event on Austin 101 Magazine.
Willie Nelson setlist:
Whiskey River (Johnny Bush cover)
Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer) (Bob Willis cover)
Always On My Mind
On the Road Again (Beto O’Rourke & son guest on guitar)
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings cover)
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
I Thought About You, Lord
If I Die When I’m High I’ll Be Halfway to Heaven
Bloody Mary Morning
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? / I’ll Fly Away
It’s Hard to Be Humble (Mac Davis cover)