If not for the pandemic, this weekend, nearly 75,000 people a day would have gathered in Austin’s Zilker Park for the second weekend of the 2020 Austin City Limits Music Festival. Instead, it’s being presented virtually, as a three-day livestream mixing classic festival performances and new content recorded without audiences. And if not for the pandemic, Willie Nelson would surely be stepping onstage somewhere this weekend for another date (or three?) on what’s essentially a never-ending tour. Instead, Wille’s been off the bus since March and is safely holed up at home. “It’s frustrating,” he told me a few weeks back during a virtual conversation for the Texas Tribune Festival. “The last thing I would want to do is have a concert and have a lot of people come out and get sick. I don’t want that to happen. And however long it takes to get back to normal … we’ll wait.”
Tonight, if only for an hour, the festival and Willie teamed up to give us something to pass the time. Four years ago, at the 2016 edition of ACL Fest, Willie—who played the 1974 pilot episode of the Austin City Limits television show—turned in an instantly classic golden-hour set. Never-before-seen, professionally shot multi-cam video of that performance—from Matthew McConaughey’s raucous introduction to the final notes of the gospel standard “I Saw the Light”—is one of the anchors of this year’s online festival. And to accompany it, with both Willie’s and the festival’s blessings, Texas Monthly commissioned the Austin-based content production house Arts + Labor to interpret and animate a piece of that 2016 set. “On the Road Again,” which premiered as part of Friday night’s festival livestream, is now exclusively available on our YouTube channel.
The animated “On the Road Again” (cherry-picked from the set because it’s taken on new cultural significance at a time where musicians, for the most part, can’t tour) opens with a frame based on an aerial photograph shot by festival photographers that captures the enormous mass of humanity that showed up for Willie’s 6 p.m. set on the Samsung Stage. Festival organizers say it’s the largest non-headlining audience in the festival’s eighteen-year history, and conventional wisdom suggests it was upward of 50,000 people.
At ACL Fest 2016, Texas turned out for Willie, and Willie seemed to turn it up a notch or three for Texas. The audio on our animated short—lifted directly from the 2016 performance—captures a punchy delivery of a song we’ve all heard enough to know in and out, front to back. The rest of the set sparkles, too; the obligatory medley of “Funny How Times Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life” felt anything but obligatory or perfunctory, and after tributes to his friends Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and a gorgeous take on “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” he managed a masterful segue from “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” (introduced as “a new gospel song we wrote”) to a set-closing trio of bona fide gospel standards.
Our “On the Road Again” is designed to be fun, a two-minute animated diversion during trying times, but combine it with the rest of the ACL Fest 2020 stream—which includes archival sets from St. Vincent, Radiohead, Phish, and Paul McCartney throughout the weekend—and it’s also a reminder of all the years we’ve been able to saddle up together in a gorgeous city park, enjoying music from next big things and cultural treasures alike. Maybe we took it for granted? In his introduction, McConaughey (who, spoiler alert!, the Arts + Labor team took some artistic liberties with their rendering of) told the audience, “It’s great to know that there’s no other coordinate in the universe that you’d rather be than right here, right now.” What would you pay for those fantasy coordinates right now?