Willie Nelson Returns to the Stage with Fourth of July Picnic After Health Concerns

Willie Nelson Returns to the Stage with Fourth of July Picnic After Health Concerns

Willie Nelson is back on the road again. Following weeks of concerns regarding unspecified health issues, the Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer made a triumphant return for his annual Fourth of July Picnic event at Freedom Mortgage Pavilion in Camden, New Jersey, on Thursday. Acts including Mavis Staples, Maren Morris, Bob Dylan, and more appeared at the event.

Footage of the country icon’s return to the stage was shared on Nelson’s social media pages. The “Always on My Mind” singer walked out to an explosion of cheers from the audience. Nelson waved at the adoring crowd as he made his way to the mic. “He’s bbaaacccckkkkk,” the post read.

Two weeks ago, Nelson, 91, was reported — via his social media — to “not (be) feeling well.” Per his physician’s orders, Nelson was advised to rest, forcing him to cancel performances in Georgia and North Carolina. Another performance in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was similarly scrapped a few days later.

Those attending Nelson’s Outlaw Road Show dates were treated instead to his band (dubbed Family), his son Lukas Nelson, and special guests performing Nelson’s classics and other songs. Other scheduled performers, including Dylan, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and Celisse, filled out sets in his absence.

In February, Nelson announced an “unprecedented” lineup including himself, Dylan, Plant, Krauss, John Mellencamp, Billy Strings, Brittney Spencer, Celisse, and Southern Avenue among acts scheduled to play a run of two dozen North American dates through October. “This year’s Outlaw Music Festival Tour promises to be the biggest and best yet with this lineup of legendary artists,” Nelson said at the time. “I am thrilled to get back on the road again with my family and friends playing the music we love for the fans we love.”

Nelson’s festival dates have evolved into one of North America’s most significant annual touring franchises for the past decade. Musicians including Chris Stapleton, Neil Young, Luke Combs, Van Morrison, ZZ Top, Eric Church, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, The Avett Brothers, and many more have appeared. Many of those acts celebrated Nelson’s improved health via Instagram comments. “Yes! This makes my heart so happy. We must protect Willie at all costs,” Margo Price wrote.

Actress and singer Kate Hudson responded to the video of Nelson’s return with a trio of red heart emojis. In 2023, Nelson was honored with a CBS-aired 90th birthday celebration from Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl featuring Nelson, Crow, Stapleton, Beck, Gary Clark Jr., Snoop Dogg, Norah Jones, Miranda Lambert, Dave Matthews, Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, Keith Richards, and George Strait.

This isn’t the first time Nelson has been sidelined by health issues. The singer nearly canceled his On the Road Again tour in August 2019 due to a “breathing problem.” After doctors addressed the issue one month later, the tour resumed.

Nelson’s 152nd album, “The Border,” was released from Sony’s Legacy Recordings on May 31. The album’s lead single, a take on Rodney Crowell’s 2019 track “The Border,” is written as a tale of the life and times of a Texas border guard. It also features a who’s-who of iconic musicians and songwriters, including longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon (“Once Upon a Yesterday,” “What If I’m Out of My Mind,” “Kiss Me When You’re Through,” “How Much Does It Cost” and “Hank’s Guitar”).

Other collaborators include Larry Cordle and Erin Enderlin (“I Wrote This Song for You”); Crowell and Will Jennings (“Many a Long and Lonesome Highway”); Shawn Camp and Monty Holmes (“Made in Texas”); and Mike Reid (“Nobody Knows Me Like You”).

After missing the first two weeks of the Outlaw Music Festival Tour due to unspecified health issues, the country legend will be back onstage Thursday in Philly. After missing the first seven shows of the Outlaw Music Festival due to an unspecified illness, Willie Nelson will be returning to the concert stage July 4th in Camden, New Jersey — just across the river from Philadelphia — for his annual Fourth of July Picnic. He will, however, be sitting out Tuesday’s show at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts.

“Willie Nelson is looking forward to seeing everyone in Camden on July 4,” reads a post on Nelson’s Instagram page. “He will not be performing in Mansfield tonight. Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and Celisse will perform as scheduled. In addition, Lukas Nelson and Family, along with some special guests, will once again play his own set that will include Willie’s classics and other songs.”

Thursday’s Fourth of July Picnic, held outside of Texas for the first time in 14 years, is essentially an expanded version of a typical Outlaw Festival Tour stop where the standard headliners of Nelson, Dylan, Plant and Krauss, and Celisse will be joined by Maren Morris and Mavis Staples.

Lukas Nelson has filled in for his father every night of the Outlaw tour up until this point. Playing alongside harmonica player Mickey Raphael and other members of Willie’s band, Lukas has delivered a set that mixes classics like “On the Road Again,” “Crazy,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” along with his original compositions, including “Just Outside of Austin” and “Find Yourself.” They were joined by Edie Brickell in Syracuse, New York, and Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi in Alpharetta, Georgia.

The tour comes just four weeks after Lukas announced that his band Promise of the Real was taking a hiatus after 15 years of working together, including numerous tours where they backed Neil Young. “Lukas plans to keep writing, recording, and playing shows, while the rest of us will continue to pursue our own projects and artistic ambitions,” they wrote in a group statement. “Expect to see a lot more great art from all of us in the near future. We continue to love playing together, and we intend to work together again in the future, both individually and as a group. For now, you can see the band out on the summer 2024 dates. Thanks to all the Realers for your endless support. You’re the best fans in the world. We love you, and we’ll see you down the road.”

He’s on the road again. Nearly two weeks after bowing out of his Outlaw Music Festival Tour with an undisclosed illness for what turned out to be eight missed shows, Willie Nelson was back on stage making music with his friends (and Family), just in time for his annual Fourth of July Picnic. “How’s it going?” the singer, who celebrated his ninety-first birthday in April, said over a joyous din of high-pitched cheers from fans at the Freedom Mortgage Pavilion in Camden, New Jersey, Thursday night. With Trigger hanging from the familiar red, white, and blue guitar strap, Willie sat down on a padded stool and got down to business: Whiskey River, take my mind. His voice was a bit rough-hewn at the start, his phrasing more deliberate and talky, but the guitar fingers were firing on all cylinders.

A few songs later came a tentatively gorgeous “I Never Cared For You.” It was like watching a baseball pitcher take a few innings to feel things out, getting by on craft and nerve before reminding everyone exactly what makes him an ace. “Y’all doing all right?” Willie asked the crowd. “Been gone for a while, but it’s good to be back. Real lucky to be here and thank you for coming.” He also thanked everyone for the “fan mail,” in case you wondered whether Willie reads Instagram comments. (He probably also got real mail.)

It had already been, in the words of Robert Plant, a “rip-roaring day” at the pavilion, with sets by Bob Dylan, Plant and Alison Krauss, Maren Morris, Mavis Staples, Celisse, and Bowen Young. When you’re Willie Nelson, this is the caliber of your opening acts, with the picnic basically a value-added tour stop for the Outlaw Music Festival Tour (Staples, Morris, and Bowen Young played only this date).

It was the first Fourth of July Picnic held outside of Texas since 2009, in a location that was meant to be symbolic—just across the Delaware River from where the Declaration of Independence was signed, in Philadelphia—but was still in New Jersey, at a generic outdoor amphitheater. Of course, the event hasn’t been held on a field in Dripping Springs (the very first location) or Luckenbach or even Austin’s Zilker Park for a long time. More recently, it was at the Circuit of Americas from 2015 until 2019, and then spent the last two years at Q2 Stadium, both in the Capital City area.

Willie’s fans are everywhere, though, and people clearly traveled to see him play on Independence Day. Some sported bandanas both in Willie red and in red, white, and blue (the latter were given out at the show), as well as the classic “Shotgun Willie” T-shirts; apparel for his CBD brand, Willie’s Remedy; and vintage souvenirs of past concerts in Pedernales and Fort Worth. The man of the hour wore his “LEGALIZE” shirt.

The Family is as big a part of any Willie Nelson show as the man himself, and they were pleased to have their patriarch back. “My kid over here, Lukas,” the singer said before his son, who’d also been filling in for his father the previous eight nights, scorched—both vocally and on electric guitar—through “Texas Flood.” Father and son also did their cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.” Later, during one of the younger Nelson’s guitar solos, the crowd cheered the sight of Willie’s admiring grin as much as the solo itself.

Second guitarist Waylon Payne—Jody’s boy, and a solo artist in his own right—took over for “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” with Lukas handling the first guitar solo and then Willie string-bending Trigger as only he can. And as a band, The Family—drummer Billy English, bassist Kevin Smith, percussionist Anthony LoGerfo, and stalwart harmonica player Mickey Raphael—swung and shuffled as hard and true as ever, turning Camden into Luck, Texas, for sixty minutes.

For “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Willie gave himself a break by turning it over to the crowd (some of whom, in Philadelphia Eagles gear, might have thought they were singing about the football team). The night also gave us the first-ever performance of the title track from new album The Border, a haunting Rodney Crowell–Allen Shamblin song, featuring Raphael on accordion, that couldn’t be a more appropriate choice on this day in the United States in 2024.

The show ended with “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” in a traditional group-sing with Bowen Young, Morris, and Celisse (but not Staples, Plant, Krauss, or—could you imagine?—Dylan). But before that, there was the humor of “Roll Me Up and Smoke When I Die” and an even more resonant and meta “Still Not Dead.” “I woke up still not dead again today,” Willie sang. “The news said I was gone, to my dismay. Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play.” He’s scheduled to do just that again this weekend in Bethel, New York, and Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Source: USA TODAY, Nashville Tennessean

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