At the start and end, Friday’s “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas” concert for hurricane relief at the Erwin Center was much like all great Willie Nelson shows. It began, as Willie always does, with “Whiskey River,” before closing with an “I’ll Fly Away”/”Will the Circle Be Unbroken” finale. In between, though, Austin got to see a concert the likes of which has never been thrown here.
There was Willie singing “Funny How Times Slips Away” with Leon Bridges, and “Texas Flood” with Bonnie Raitt and Jimmie Vaughan. Then Bonnie sang with James Taylor. Then Taylor fronted Asleep at the Wheel. Then Asleep at the Wheel backed Paul Simon and Edie Brickell singing “Waltz Across Texas.” Then the Dixie Chicks’ Martie Maguire and gospel sensation Ruthie Foster joined Raitt for “Angel From Montgomery.” And on and on and on. It was that kind of night, for more than four hours.
All of the musical magic that happened was for the benefit of Rebuild Texas, a hurricane relief effort created by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in collaboration with the OneStar Foundation. According to the RebuildTX.org website, the fund “will support community partners in four focus areas — health and housing; schools and child care; workforce and transportation; and capital for rebuilding small businesses.”
Celebrities including Matthew McConaughey, Renee Zellweger, Luke Wilson, Vince Young, Andy Roddick and Brooklyn Decker, as well as officials such as Austin mayor Steve Adler and Houston police chief Art Acevedo, appeared between performers to beat the drum for the Rebuild Texas cause. Show host Andy Langer announced that even before a telethon-style hour of the concert aired on TV and YouTube at 9 p.m., the event already had raised $1.6 million for the fund.
The first hour or so was like a “greatest hits” lead-in. Many key moments happened between 7:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., specifically so they could be included on the video portion that was quickly edited and prepared for the broadcast. Those watching at home got to hear the Nelson collaborations, Taylor and Raitt singing “You Can Close Your Eyes” together, Lyle Lovett’s “Simple Song,” Simon’s “America” and more, including a surprisingly strong cameo from Ha*Ash, the Mexican pop duo of sisters Hanna and Ashley Mosa.
After a short break, most of the big-name performers played another three songs each, before Nelson returned for a seven-song mini-set to close things out just past 11:30 p.m. A standout addition to the post-television segment was Ryan Bingham, who shone brightly with a backing cast that included the Dixie Chicks’ Martie Maguire on fiddle and vocals plus local singer Jai Malano.
Others in the second-half mix included Colorado’s high-energy soul-rockers Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats, who drew both Bingham and Raitt out to jam with them; and Tejano legends Little Joe y La Familia, a very late add to the bill and a longtime personal favorite of Nelson. (As performers departed at the show’s end, the jumbotron showed Nelson and Little Joe Hernandez warmly embracing.)
Brickell also returned for two songs with her longtime band New Bohemians, before rejoining Simon for joyously humorous cover of the 1970s Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn hit “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Brickell also did the honors for one of the evening’s most important acknowledgments: “Did anybody introduce Charlie Sexton?”
The Austin guitarist, a two-decade veteran of Bob Dylan’s band, was the night’s musical director, leading a support crew that wove together variations of Asleep at the Wheel with ace local musicians such as drummer Ramy Antoun and keyboardist Michael Ramos. As host Langer noted near the end of the night, “you largely have Charlie Sexton to thank” for the star-studded lineup and collaborations that made “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas” an unforgettable special event.
PHOTO GALLERY: “Harvey Can’t Mess With Texas” concert at Erwin Center