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Seeing Willie Nelson perform in Texas is like a country music fan’s pilgrimage to Mecca. But seeing the Red Headed Stranger perform on his own property in Texas is even more of a religious experience.
Last night, as part of the South by Southwest Music Festival, Willie wowed an invitation-only crowd with a special “surprise” performance at his Luck, Texas, Ranch, about 40 minutes outside of Austin. Billed as the Heartbreaker Banquet, the event featured a diverse roster of music acts during the afternoon, including foot-stomping folkies the Felice Brothers, Americana darlings Shovels & Rope, Nashville chanteuse Nikki Lane and Country Weekly On the Edge act Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Willie’s sons Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson also performed with their bands, the Promise of the Real and Insects vs. Robots, respectively.
All of the artists were exceptional and drew cheers from the dusty crowd, but the true “chills moment” came when Willie took the stage at 10 p.m. Bundled against the clear Texas sky cold in a hooded jacket and baseball hat, Willie and his Family Band opened with requisite “Whiskey River,” drawing whoops with its familiar opening chords.
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Willie’s underrated anthem “Still Is Still Moving to Me” followed, along with tributes to Waylon Jennings in “Good Hearted Woman” and Hank Williams with “Hey Good Lookin’.” The emotional highlight, however, came during an interpretation of the bluesy “Texas Flood,” with Lukas Nelson singing and playing lead and Micah Nelson on a simple snare drum, both of them trading looks and smiles with their legendary father.
With the moon high in the sky, Willie wrapped up the set with “I’ll Fly Away” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” drawing other artists—including fellow Texas outlaw Billy Joe Shaver—onto the stage for one last singalong.
Willie is set to perform again Saturday night with Keith Urban during the iTunes Festival at SXSW. Most amazingly? He turns 81 next month.
Look for more on Willie, Keith and other artists at SXSW in the April 21 issue of Country Weekly, on stands now.