"The reason I wanted to do it in July was because it was hot, and I figured that any kind of violence that might break out would be lessened by the heat. I figured if people smoked enough dope and drank enough beer, then they wouldn't want to fight. Especially if it was hot."
That's what Willie Nelson once said about his annual Fourth of July Picnic. He held the first in 1973 in Dripping Springs, Texas, and by the fourth one, his show was a 3-day festival that had turned into the most popular annual musical event in the entire nation.
The early picnics went all-day and sometimes multiple days. They'd feature dozens of acts sometimes on multiple stages. In short, they were the biggest annual party in Texas, bar none, and they were in Texas, always in Texas.
So when fans heard that Willie's 33rd picnic was going to be held in Washington state, the response was, "Huh?" Washington, of all places. At the Gorge Amphitheater, nine-time winner of Pollstar's Best Outdoor Music Venue award, and situated in a beautiful location overlooking the Columbia River gorge. But still. Washington.
That's as far as you can get from Texas, and still be in the continental U.S. What about the heat, Willie, to suppress the violence? And aren't they all Pearl Jam fans up there - will anyone even show up for this?
Regarding the first concern, there was no need to worry: The Gorge hit 97 degrees with the sun beating down and not a cloud in the sky. The heat and the scrubby desert of eastern Washington could have been west Texas if you squinted your eyes just right.
And as for the second concern, well, a full house showed up to see Willie play in Washington. True music legends find an audience, even thousands of miles from home.
Although the fans turned out, the acts did not. Rather than what fans have come to expect from Fourth of July Picnics, with 20 or 30 acts playing throughout the day, and Willie jumping on and off the stage to collaborate, this was a more traditional concert, with 4 opening acts, each scheduled for 45 minutes.
Fans got treated to a parade of alt.-country and Americana musicians, most of which, judging by the reactions, were unknowns to this crowd.
Amos Lee brought his easy-to-listen-to blend of soulful vocals and bluesy / folky arrangements to the stage, engaging the few early arrivers in attendance, even talking to individuals in the front rows. Fans clapped politely as he played one enjoyable song after another, but the crowd came alive at the long instrumental in "Give It Up." Lee has been called the male Norah Jones, and the comparison is apt.
The next act, Drive-By Truckers, was the antithesis of the subdued, laid-back Lee. Six people hit the stage - two electric guitars, a bass guitar, a steel guitar (although he sometimes switched to add another electric guitar to the mix), keyboard and drums. The volume was cranked up to ear-splitting level, and the pace was frenetic. Their songs generally tell amusing stories, but it's unfortunate that they're so hard to understand, given the cacophony behind the vocals. They closed with "Zip City," a clever vignette of small-town America.
The Old 97's, reunited after a long hiatus, were opening a new tour and despite the heat, grateful to be out of Texas, which had seen massive flooding in recent days. Their particular blend of traditional honky tonk and frantic punk was on full display, with lead singer Rhett Miller in constant motion.
Some of their best songs come from the now-decade-old "Too Far to Care" album - "Melt Show," "Barrier Reef," "West Texas Teardrops" and the closing two, "Big Brown Eyes" and "Timebomb" were highlights. "Timebomb" is the bold, crazy opener to that great album and served as a fine punctuation mark to an outstanding set.
Son Volt, formed by Jay Farrar after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, played a series of melodic country and rock songs, from "Tear-Stained Eye" to "Windfall" to the hit "Drown." Acoustic guitar strumming framed "Adrenaline and Heresy," featuring the image of a "placebo pill full of bitter comfort."
Before Willie hit the stage, two events commanded the fans' attention. First, a sudden rise of applause came out of the crowd, starting slowly and building, for no immediately apparent reason. The sun had gone down! The sweating, sweltering crowd was going crazy, not for a band on stage, but for relief from the sun! The day turned not exactly cool, but comfortable.
The second event was the arrival onstage of a teenage boy, accompanied by four guys in a band behind him. The kid was in blue athletic shorts and white tennis shoes - he didn't look like he belonged on the stage, yet no one was kicking him off. He played one song, "At Last." Then another. He didn't have much stage presence, saying more than once, almost apologetically, that they were going to play another song.
But after a few songs, fans found themselves tapping their feet, appreciating the high, somewhat nasal voice of the kid and, especially, his incredible electric guitar solos. Why was he here? The kid announced 25 minutes later that their band was called 40 Points, and they left the stage.
Finally, around 9:30, after some waited 5-1/2 hours in the unrelenting heat, Willie Nelson took the stage, and the audience took to their feet. He walked around a bit in his black muscle shirt, black jeans and braids, and he gave some big two-handed waves out to the crowd. Next he donned a set of red, white, and blue beads, and launched into his traditional opener, "Whiskey River," to the screams, whistles and general pandemonium of the crowd.
The reaction to the opening acts had been subdued - they were all relative unknowns to this audience, and received a polite reaction that said, "We like your music all right, but we came for Willie."
And Willie's what they finally saw and heard - for two hours, he reeled off one hit song after another that he had either written or recorded or both. "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "On the Road Again."
Early on, he played "Beer for My Horses" - as the story goes, when Toby Keith asked him to do this duet, he agreed as soon as he saw the title.
"Always on My Mind" started with the spotlight on Willie's sister Bobbie playing piano - this one was a clear favorite with the crowd, many slow-dancing along.
Willie had a small army behind him onstage - 8 musicians, including several of those from 40 Points. That teenaged kid who played the mean guitar? Front and center with Willie, playing lead electric guitar to Willie's classical, the one with the hole worn through the wood where the pick-guard should be. Willie introduced him - Lukas, Willie's son! Turns out the kid is 18 years old, and while he's a little shy in front of an audience, he can sure sing and play. His younger brother Mikah was playing percussion - a Willie show is a true family affair.
As the show went on the sky became black, and the stars came out. With the Big Dipper overhead, Willie played a tribute to Hank Williams - "Jambalaya," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Move It Over," back to back.
Even during slower numbers "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" and "Georgia on My Mind," many remained standing - the excitement at listening to this legend of music was palpable. And Willie, all of 74 years old now, can still sing and play - his quavering, high-pitched voice is just as strong as ever, and his guitar playing just as nimble.
Over the course of the show, he played a few new songs. Lukas sang backup on "I Gotta Get Over You Again." "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore" drew laughs with the line, "I used to fake a heart attack and fall down on the floor, but even I don't think that's funny anymore."
He played "Milk Cow Blues" and then said thanks and made like he was getting off the stage, but then he played one more song, "Peaceful Solution," a song about taking back America, an appropriate ending to a festival celebrating America's independence.
In the end, everyone got what they wanted to see - a fantastic show by one of America's true icons. In Texas or Washington, Willie Nelson is truly one of this nation's most beloved musicians and performers.