Review: Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic at Billy Bob’s Texas

Posted 7:03am on Saturday, Jul. 05, 2014

Watching Willie Nelson, but remembering Robert Earl Keen: “The road goes on forever/And the party never ends.”

Nelson took a crack at the tune way back in 1995 on the Highwaymen record of the same name, but Friday, at the 41st annual 4th of July Picnic that bears his name, the lyric took on a deeper, more resonant meaning.

Nelson turned 81 in April, and early in his 75-minute set on the North Forty Friday, he sounded it.

His voice, on the eternal opening one-two punch of Whiskey River and Still Is Still Moving , sounded mottled with something: phlegm, emotion, age.

But as he loosened up, so did the performance.

By the night’s emotional centerpiece — a vivid, poignant reading of Pearl Jam’s Just Breathe with his son, Lukas, whose voice seemed to catch on the line “Hold me ‘til I die” as fireworks glittered on Fort Worth’s skyline — Nelson and Trigger were in fine form, leading the familiar faces (Mickey Raphael, Bobbie Nelson and even Fort Worth native Paul English, one of three drummers on stage) through a set list spanning the decades between Nite Life, Crazy and Beer For My Horses.

That Nelson and his musical compatriots have sustained the picnic for over four decades is remarkable. Not every year is a pitch perfect collection of talent — last year’s 40th anniversary picnic set an unfairly high bar to clear this year — but whatever else transpires over the course of a usually scorching hot day in the Fort Worth Stockyards, there’s always the hesitant then firm opening chords of Whiskey River and the bandanna-clad troubadour to pluck ‘em.

While it would be nice if life were like that Robert Earl Keen classic, the party will, eventually, draw to a close, as evidenced by recent months and the toll taken on Nashville’s legends, most notably the loss of picnic fixture Ray Price last year.

It’s odd to attend such a relaxed, celebratory event with such shadows lurking, but with each passing picnic, as the torch is ever so subtly handed to a growing number of younger acts, it’s not hard to feel like the end of an era is nigh. Some families are fortunate to enjoy continuity between the generations, and the Nelsons certainly appear to have fostered an appreciation for the past in their children.

Will the picnic last another 40 years? Hard to know.

Glancing around Friday, it certainly didn’t seem as if anyone was taking it for granted, soaking up the songs and enjoying, for a night anyway, one more summertime party, thrown by a man who knows his way around a good time.

An estimated crowd of 12,000 filled in the North Forty Friday, and were treated to brief performances on two stages that, sadly, often fell short of the headliner.

Of the other acts on the bill I was able to see, Ray Wylie Hubbard, back in Cowtown after a stint at the Fort Worth Music Festival earlier this year, was his usual sharp self, as was Ryan Bingham, working the seam between country and rock, all but calling for a blue collar revolution and ending his set with a take on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, stuck, as usual, in the enervating late afternoon slot, made the most of its time on stage, doling out a surprisingly tender rendition of the Beatles’ Blackbird.

The Josh Abbott Band may be popular (and judging from how many people I spotted wearing the band’s shirts before, during and after their set, they are), but the tone-deaf exhortations for the audience to “get laid tonight” felt a little out of sync with the other showcases to that point. Abbott couldn’t keep from exclaiming how excited the band was to perform at the picnic, and generally came off as trying a little too hard.

Dierks Bentley, who was extremely active on social media all afternoon, pinging from one stage to the other and gushing about whomever happened to be playing at the time, really ramped up the drunken frat-boy schtick during his 75-minute set. Ogling women on the front row (and repeatedly leering at “the fine Texas women”) and shotgunning a beer early in his set left a sour taste — those gathered to watch him didn’t need any encouragement to drink more, and Bentley’s dull, simplistic tunes remain a paragon of new country vapidity.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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