The Austin Chronicle


By Christopher Gray, July 11, 2003, Music

Down by the River

Freedom and equality and liberty and justice for all might look great on paper, but the inalienable right celebrated most on this Independence Day, heading to Willie Nelson's 30th anniversary July Fourth picnic in Spicewood, was the right of public urination. During the three-hour traffic snarl approaching Two River Canyon Ampitheatre, "TCB" witnessed 16 brave individuals do their business alongside Highway 71, including three especially valiant squatters. The westbound lanes were solid pickups, SUVs, and Deadheads from Bee Cave on, so the waterworks presented a welcome diversion, as did some 12-year-olds in a small blue church bus. Their "Jesus Loves You" signs met with all measure of response, from honks of approval to the standard devil-horn salute and cries of "Jerry loves you, too."

Speaking of Jerry, the traffic was nothing compared to his surviving bandmates in the Dead's eveninglong exploration of jam's outer limits, which had exactly one of two effects: seeing God, who looked a lot like Marty Robbins during a surprise turn through "El Paso," or total and complete boredom. It was a bit strange seeing Joan Osborne up there with Weir, Lesh, et al., but her throaty vocals and feline stage moves lent the aging Haight-Ashbury holdovers an appealing dash of (relatively) youthful verve. Either way, the band's three-hour set afforded plenty of opportunity to explore the facility -- a scenic (and after some afternoon showers), wet hillside in the thick of rugged post-oak and chaparral country.

The grounds were essentially divided into three areas: backstage, a miniature village of buses and RVs; the main concourse, a sea of humanity at least 20,000 strong ringed by vendors offering beer, Willie merchandise, "Keep Austin Weird" T-shirts, and $4 slices of pizza (the $5 nachos were a much better deal); and the VIP area, a tent the size of a football field erected to placate sponsors and other guest-listers with free booze and a big-screen TV with no sound. When it got dark and the Dead were still playing, the longstanding question, "Is it possible to get busted for pot at Willie's picnic?" was answered, distressingly, in the affirmative when a sheriff's liaison officer escorted one unlucky toker from the premises. Hope the folks at the NORML booth signed up lots of law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

After that nasty shock, Pat Green's turn at bat was something of a pleasant surprise. The much-derided prince of KVET rose to the occasion with a slick, assured performance, where the rock & roll glitz of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" couldn't obscure the Steve Earle sentiment of Green's "Three Days." Even though it meant missing our absolute most favorite singer in the whole wide world, Toby Keith, the "TCB" party called it a night, though not before a parking-lot encounter with one Kent Caldwell and family. Caldwell, Bandera's "Unknown Celebrity," serenaded us with tunes like "Cowboys Don't Dance," while "alpha female" wife Cynthia fed us Busch and chided 15-year-old son Austin for constantly talking on his cell phone. When the fireworks went off in the Porta Potti, we knew it was time to leave.

Saturday, the drive out to Two River was a comparative breeze, and at the site, the crowd was likewise lighter (17,000). High points of the long, lazy afternoon were Ray Wylie Hubbard's charming "Screw You, We're From Texas," the flamenco flash of Austin's Del Castillo, honky-tonk eternal Billy Joe Shaver, and someone on loan from Girls Gone Wild flashing her breasts at Willie while his blues band was onstage. (Willie, family man that he is, averted his gaze by promptly turning the other direction.) Patty Griffin was as lovely as the descending twilight on "Truth No. 2" and an Español version of "1,000 Kisses." Titty Bingo, with their sponsor Willie on green electric guitar, was jaw-droppingly bad, while Cross Canadian Ragweed ran through 35 minutes of high-octane redneck rock that saw Willie emerge for a juiced-up "Whiskey River." A solo acoustic Shawn Colvin attempted to soothe the by-then restive crowd, saying, "I know it's late, and you want to see Neil -- I want to see Neil," and drew both heckling and sing-alongs to the chorus of "Sunny Came Home" for her efforts.

At long last, a full 25 minutes before the supposed midnight cutoff time, Neil Young & Crazy Horse came on to the smoldering, surf-kissed strains of "Love to Burn." Subdued and seething all at once, Young led his longtime compadres through an hour that made up in summer-night reverie ("Powderfinger," "Roll Another Number," "Down by the River") what it may have lacked in sheer firepower. Even Willie got into the act, jamming alongside the Horse on his acoustic(!) sidekick Trigger for 15-20 minutes. "Rockin' in the Free World," complete with Native American ghost dancer, finished things off with a political and spiritual kick.

Thus ended Saturday, as Sunday began with Willie, an enormous American flag behind him, calling daughter Paula Nelson back to the stage (her Fastball set earlier in the evening had been "politely received") for some tunes from Farther Along, his new gospel album. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" was the first, and as picnickers either settled in for church or streamed out to beat the traffic, it was apparent that this particular circle is in no immediate jeopardy. In two days, it was all here: the sublime and the absurd, the uproarious and the poignant, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and exploding Porta Potties. What a country. God bless America.

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