SXSW Music Review: Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion
Mavis Staples steals show at the Red Headed Stranger’s ranch
By Doug Freeman,
1:10PM, Fri. Mar. 15, 2019
Now in its eighth year, the Luck Reunion at Willie Nelson’s Spicewood ranch has become one of the premier events during SXSW. The single-day festival mixing artists new and veteran boasts a diversity-expanding Americana. With Mavis Staples headlining a new stage dedicated to female artists, that mission struck more powerfully than ever on Thursday.
While the Nelson family’s finale – Paula Nelson with Jesse Dayton, Micah Nelson jamming his Particle Kid, Lukas Nelson’s increasingly exceptional Promise of the Real, and the patriarch’s time-tested string of hits – brings a communal and familiar close to the all-day gathering, new artists that the Reunion introduces incentivize early arrival. Two new official stages – the packed Saloon stage and another in the beer garden – also added to the roster’s depth, offering six total stages and a constant stream of music.
A slew of international acts provided early afternoon highlights. British soul siren Yola seemed restrained through new LP Walk Through Fire before finally unleashing her powerhouse vocals with closer “Faraway Look.” Kenyan songwriter J.S. Ondarra likewise stunned the small chapel spinning Tales From America, and Manchester trio Fruit Tones unloaded wonderfully ramshackle garage-glam. Aussie Angie McMahon delivered the breakout set, with a vocal range and smart songwriting that pulled crowds across the field.
The Revival Tent lived up to its name with some of the day’s most energetic performances.
Ft. Worth’s Quaker City Night Hawks grounded gritty Southern rock, while Philly fivepiece Low Cut Connie prosthelytized pure rock & roll behind frontman Adam Weiner trouncing his piano. Langhorne Slim preached love as he wandered into the crowd, and Hayes Carll showed off What It Is in the headlining slot with his perfect mix of poignant and clever songwriting.
By comparison, the Luck World Headquarters mainstage felt subdued through Steve Earle, rumbling a slew of Guy Clark tunes from his upcoming tribute to the late master songsmith, and Shakey Graves’ lukewarm evening set never quite managed to connect. Markus King provided the exception, roaring bluesy Southern burners to spark the afternoon heat.
Although unannounced special guests and surprises were few this year, the festival hardly needed them and still provided enough pop-up serendipity to keep crowds roaming. Ofrendas to late songwriters were scattered around the grounds, a New Orleans second line randomly rolled through, and Foo Fighter Chris Shiflett recorded a live episode of his podcast with Shakey Graves in the Beer Garden.
Mavis Staples struck the undisputed high point, however, emerging like a ball of pure joy and love to growl out the glory, sliding in the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” among her anthems of inspiration and struggle. Nathaniel Rateliff joined for “What You Gonna Do,” before she wrangled nearly all the Reunion’s female artists onstage together to sing to “The Weight.”