Willie’s Picnic Brings the Fireworks, and Beto O’Rourke, to Q2

Old Austin meets new Austin with Fourth of July Concert

Willie Nelson, wearing number 420 for the USMNT, with Ray Benson at his Fourth of July Picnic. (Photo by Gary Miller)

The 49th anniversary of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic also marked the first ever concert at Q2 Stadium, home of the Austin FC – our two year kickin’ Major League Soccer club. The venue proved an impressive host, despite the crowd having to shift with the shade throughout the blistering hot day.

With the stage set against the supporters’ section and pitch covered with hard tiles, Q2 felt amply spacious. The event was far from sold out, with attendance peaking around Tyler Childers’ 7:20pm set, but the 20,000-plus capacity stadium was filled enough to meet the moment without being uncomfortable. Likewise, the overall production, with screens on either side of the stage, suggested the venue being a solid home for future concerts.

The day-long fest, which kicked off with Asleep at the Wheel at noon, suffered from the heat, but the performances didn’t wilt. Charley Crockett sweated through his sequin-encrusted cream white suit in the afternoon sun, yet rose to the big stage occasion as he shimmied and shook behind his high-slung guitar and throwback country sound.

Allison Russell (Photo by Gary Miller)

Midland also understood the afternoon assignment of rousting the roasting audience, throwing a string of covers into their set ranging from Eddie Rabbit’s “Driving My Life Away” and Garth Brooks’ “Much to Young (To Feel this Damn Old)” to Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down” and Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” With Jonathan Terrell whipping an additional guitar and vocals for the band, Midland set up the Brothers Osborne’s shredding set. John Osborne blistered on guitar to T.J.’s low, smooth growl for the most amped up offering of the day.

Allison Russell, the only female artist on the bill, brought a late afternoon surge of hard truths and joyous anthems. The Canadian songwriter, who’s Grammy nominated 2021 album Outside Child marked a number of Americana best-of lists last year, extended her “beloved community” to the crowd with support from her all-female five-piece band, which included the duo SistaStrings on cello and violin. The set was soulful and moving, rejoicing beyond pain as she delivered the most socially-charged moment of day.

The crowd held its biggest anticipation for Tyler Childers’ sunset performance though. The Kentucky firebrand emerged to roaring applause and the crowd remained standing through most of the set. Slimmed down and clean-shaven, Childer’s intense glare and high-holler struck more as blue-collar Appalachian than the wild-eyed hillbilly shaman from the previous times he’d visited Austin, but the tight seven-piece outfit still ripped at times with psychedelic touches cut into the deep country howl. He surprised with a beautiful rendition of “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and fellow Kentuckian S.G. Goodman’s swaying “Space and Time.”

Tyler Childers (Photo by Gary Miller)

Despite a noticeable audience exit after Childers’ set, Jason Isbell set up the main event with an impressively tight hour that ran through anthemic hits like “24 Frames,” “Hope the High Road,” and “Last of My Kind.” He also managed to completely silence the entire stadium as he delivered “If We Were Vampires,” and then turned in a boisterous singalong to the dramatic “Cover Me Up,” before ending with a blowout of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”

In closing, Willie emerged wearing a USNMT soccer jersey with 420 as the number, a detail that lit up Twitter as CNN apparently began broadcasting the show to a national audience. The family band was more stripped down than usual, with Ray Benson joining Kevin Smith, Billy English, and Mickey Raphael, as Willie and son Micah sat centerstage. As with his recent performances, Willie took about 30 minutes to truly warm up his vocals, but leaned early on Micah (who delivered the wonderful “Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven”). Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and his son even emerged to play along for “On the Road Again,” met by a surge of cheers as he appeared on the screen.

The biggest surprise of the entire day, though, may have been the fireworks before Willie’s closeout. Launched from the roof of Q2 Stadium, the fireworks burst directly overhead, which made for an absolutely spectacular show, but likely an insurance nightmare as ashes and sparks literally fell down onto the crowd. If anything, it felt like precisely the kind of potentially haphazard situation that hearkened the exquisite carelessness of Willie’s original picnic, and the perfect christening for Austin’s newest concert venue.

Fireworks overhead at Q2 Stadium. (Photo by Gary Miller)

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Willie Nelson, Willie's Picnic, Willie's Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic, Q2 Stadium, Tyler Childers, Allison Russell, Midland, Asleep at the Wheel, Jason Isbell

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