SXSW Live Shot: Willie Nelson’s Heartbreaker Banquet

Willie’s Picnic 2.0

Now in its fourth year, the Heartbreaker Banquet on Willie Nelson’s ranch 30 miles west of Austin has evolved into a premier destination event during SXSW. The highly curated experience packs rising roots artists into the makeshift movie-prop town with Willie serving as both headliner and inspirational force.

Photo by Gary Miller

Photo by Gary Miller

Photo by Gary Miller

Photo by Gary Miller

Photo by Gary Miller

Early afternoon acts impressed as the estimated 2,500-strong crowd slowly filled the town. J.P. Harris rolled the main stage with a mix of hard Dale Watson honky-tonk and country ballads, followed by Elle King’s powerful bluesy vocals ripping ribald and defiant. The smaller tent played host to a stellar acoustic songwriters session including Langhorne Slim, Daniel Romano, Luke Bell, and Hugh Masterson.


Nashville quartet Clear Plastic Masks bolstered the afternoon with raw garage rock riffs, countering the dramatic crooning emotion of Hamilton Leithauser, frontman of the Walkmen, working new solo material. The Revival Tent kept audiences rapt in the pews behind New Orleans quintet the Deslondes’ string-n-stomp cut with high lonesome whine. Nashville’s Lindi Ortega, decked out in widow’s black, hearkened Dolly Parton.

Leon Bridges (Photo by Gary Miller)

J.P. Harris (Photo by Gary Miller)

Elle King (Photo by Gary Miller)

Langhorne Slim (Photo by Gary Miller)

Austin’s Heartless Bastards pierced the late afternoon heat, working songs from a forthcoming album that plied a mellower vibe with harmonies, but no less directly intense songwriting and vocals from Erika Wennerstrom. Fort Worth throwback soul sensation Leon Bridges continued to turn heads, packing the plaza through the immaculately smooth “Coming Home” and stunning solo closer “Take Me To Your River” as the evening cooled. Though still tentative onstage, Bridges has found a groove supported live by White Denim’s Josh Block and Austin Jenkins.

Israel Nash turned up the tent with roaring psych jams that conjured Crazy Horse and the Allman Brothers, but Angel Olsen brought the crowd to a complete hush behind her solo set, “White Fire” devastatingly drawling.

Sister Bobbie (and in the background Annie) Nelson (Photo by Gary Miller)

Lukas Nelson (Photo by Gary Miller)

Willie & Lukas Nelson (Photo by Gary Miller)

Hurray for the Riff Raff cemented the star-power of songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra on the main stage, especially a blistering “The Body Electric,” setting up the closing set from Willie Nelson & Family. Micah Nelson’s experimental jazz-grass outfit Insects vs Robots led off, but Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real proved the scion’s quartet has progressed into legitimate powerhouse, evolving beyond guitar fireworks to showcase his own songwriting talent, as his father sat smiling side-stage.

Willie’s set kept close to familiar favorites, but backed by his sons and sister Bobbie Nelson, presented a much looser and more casual atmosphere, especially in closing the night by bringing friends and extended family onstage for “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

The Heartbreaker Banquet has become something of a Willie’s Picnic 2.0, a singular experience of top talent and a unique setting that draws a similarly eclectic audience that only the headliner could round up.

Your host and permanent heartbreaker, Willie Nelson, 3.19.15 (Photo by Gary Miller)

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Willie Nelson, SXSW Music 2015, Bobbie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson, Leon Bridges, JP Harris, Elle King, Heartless Bastards, Israel Nash, Langhorne Slim

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