Oh, to be in Austin when New Year’s Eve is here. There’s no more ideal way to spend it than with Willie Nelson, singing at the theater that hosts the TV show he launched, on the downtown block that bears his name, where he’s forever venerated in bronze out front.
Around 7,500 locals, Texans and visitors are taking part in the three-day ritual this year, as ACL Live was sold out for Friday’s opener and will be again for Sunday’s official 2018 ring-in. We attended on Saturday, another sold-out evening that featured not only the likes of Willie and his longtime band but also an extended family gathering, with sons Lukas and Micah opening the show.
A-LIST PHOTOS: Willie Nelson at ACL Live on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017
Family describes so much of Willie’s musical realm that it feels heightened during the holidays. When he turns to cast the spotlight on the graceful piano runs of “sister Bobbie” Nelson — a January 1 baby who’ll turn 87 when the clock strikes midnight Sunday — or when he’s introducing his longtime drummer as “brother Paul” English (whose actual brother, Billy English, is alongside him helping him roll out the rhythm) — it’s a reminder of how close-knit Willie’s world onstage remains.
Harmonica sidekick Mickey Raphael was there too, as always. A ringer of a special guest on guitar for these three shows is Jamey Johnson, who kept his golden voice mostly under wraps, quite content to play the supporting role for the occasion. Kevin Smith, still the “newbie” of the bunch since taking over after longtime bassist Bee Spears’ passing in 2011, thumped along on electric and standup models, a sure and steady presence in the shadows behind Bobbie.
Daughter Amy (she of Folk Uke fame) came out to sing along on the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”/”I’ll Fly Away”/”I Saw the Light” finale, too. But much of the evening’s attention was focused on Willie’s two youngest sons. Micah, 27, opened (billed as the Particle Kid) with two exquisite acoustic songs (including one called “I’m in Love With the Ocean”) that suggested he may have something special in the works on an upcoming album. Lukas’s backing band, Promise of the Real, then came out and joined him for two full-on rockin’ electric songs that veered toward grunge territory and reminded that the kids will find their own way musically.
Indeed, Lukas — who turned 29 on Christmas Day — has done that impressively, especially during a banner year for him in 2017. A self-titled “Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real” album released in August recently topped the Americana charts, and Saturday’s set focused on that record, with highlights such as the acoustic “Just Outside of Austin” and soulful country-blues-rock burners such as “Forget About Georgia” and “Find Yourself.”
READ MORE: Lukas Nelson is coming into his own
A more histrionic singer and showman than his father, Lukas pushes his voice into the red on occasion, but he has the pipes to pull that off. The touring he and Micah have done with Neil Young in recent years clearly has sharpened their guitar-playing chops to a fine point; on this night, Lukas wisely forewent the over-the-top break in “Forget About Georgia” during ACL Fest in October, when he plucked guitar strings with his teeth, in favor of hard-driving solos that drew their passion simply from the playing.
It’s telling, too, that Lukas bookended his set with Tom Petty songs. He dedicated the solo acoustic opener “Breakdown,” played with exquisite bluesy deliberation, to the late rocker who clearly influenced his music in ways his father never could. And underscored the point at the end with his Promise of the Real mates driving “American Girl” home in a full-on fever. (Across downtown at Antone’s on this night, Austin band Reckless Kelly was paying tribute as well, playing a full night of Petty songs.)
Lukas’ love for the musics of both Petty and his father is a study in contrasts that reveals his character as a musician. Petty’s Heartbreakers were one of the tightest bands in rock ’n’ roll history, whereas playing with Willie calls much more on jazz-informed instincts; indeed, Willie’s family band may be the loosest country outfit ever. Petty’s vocals took their cue from the music, but with Willie, all the players work around the singer’s phrasing.
Two of the best numbers Willie’s show came mid-set when both Lukas and Micah stepped up front to sing with their dad on two tracks from their new “Willie and the Boys” album: Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” and Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” (to the melody of “Red River Valley”). And Willie put Lukas in the spotlight for the Larry Davis blues classic “Texas Flood,” a Stevie Ray Vaughan staple that Willie performed with Bonnie Raitt and Jimmie Vaughan at an Erwin Center benefit for Hurricane Harvey victims earlier this year.
They’ll all reconvene Sunday night for the real-thing New Year’s Eve bash, with Georgia band Blackberry Smoke added to the bill.
Willie Nelson set list:
1. Whiskey River
2. Still Is Still Moving to Me
3. Beer for My Horses
4. Good Hearted Woman
5. Texas Flood
6. Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
7. Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
8. On the Road Again
9. Always on My Mind
10. Move It On Over
11. Can I Sleep in Your Arms
12. Down Yonder
13. Shoeshine Man
15. Georgia on a Fast Train
16. Georgia on My Mind
17. It’s All Going to Pot
18. Still Not Dead
19. Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away/I Saw the Light