Family Gathering: With an Altar to “Sister Bobbie,” Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Returns
Jason Isbell, Adia Victoria, Nelson & sons commune
By Doug Freeman,
10:45AM, Fri. Mar. 18, 2022
At the last Luck Reunion in 2019, a number of memorials to late songwriters were scattered throughout grounds, but this year only one was placed: an altar outside the tiny Luck chapel in memory of Bobbie Nelson.
The pianist passed away last week, and Thursday night marked Willie Nelson’s first public show without his sister, the heart of the Family Band for nearly half a century.
The perennial Luck headliner’s stage seemed sparse without Bobbie’s piano, her black cowboy hat instead simply set atop a mic stand to the side. The closing set likewise struck more subdued, with Willie and sons Lukas and Micah seated center stage. Yet the entire day felt nonetheless celebratory and affirming, the Luck Reunion living up to its name as it returned following a two-year hiatus to finally mark its tenth anniversary.
The day-long fest has become a highlight during SXSW, gathering rising songwriters and major artists in the movie-set town on Nelson’s Spicewood ranch. This year continued the tradition of delivering both big-name surprises and breakout performances across the five stages, the former pinnacled with a short set from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, and the latter led by Adia Victoria’s stunning offering in the chapel.
Early highlights included Abraham Alexander’s sweet trembling soul and Jonny Burkes’ sharp spun tales and prison ballads. Tami Neilson’s smoking rockabilly capped with Willie joining her to duet and leaving the New Zealand songwriter in tears. Lily Meola’s powerhouse, suave pop vocals likewise received an assist from Lukas joining her in the beer garden.
S.G. Goodman won over the afternoon main stage crowd with her deadpan banter biting Appalachian-burnt country blues. Pulling from 2020 debut Old Time Feeling, the Kentucky songwriter leaned into her deep Holly Hunter-esque crooked twang to give her rock impulse a darker, blistering tint and haunting howl.
Adia Victoria countered playing to the packed chapel as she pushed her vision of the blues with a breathless and forceful dig into last year’s exceptional A Southern Gothic. The South Carolina native overpowered the small room, intense and cathartic when she let go, and burning the blues as prayer with “Troubled Mind.” “Being from the South, it is so hard to tell the truth about the land you’re walking on,” she acknowledged before closing with the dynamic call of “South Gotta Change.”
Michael Martin Murphey joined the Lost Gonzo Band to dig out terrific takes on classics “Wildfire,” “Cosmic Cowboy,” and of course “London Homesick Blues.” Allison Russell, meanwhile, swelled the revival tent as she pulled from last year’s standout Outside Child, and built a joyous and affirming collective call with her all-women quartet. “Persephone” and “All of the Women” testified with an lustrous grit, while her husband joined to duet the sweet “Joyful Motherfuckers.”
Local artists stepped up to the occasion as well. Jackie Venson and Suzanne Santo swapped songs and guitar licks to kick off the Beer Garden with a high bar, and Jonathan Terrell capped that stage with complete honky-tonk rockstar power as he ripped anthemic on new songs “Vagabond” and “Highway.” And Charley Crockett made his Luck debut and chilled the mainstage into the late afternoon with his mixture of suave honky tonk and more recent dip into horn-blasted Memphis-styled soul.
Although probably the most outside the Americana template of the fest, Japanese Breakfast triumphed in casting a luminous Eighties pop glow behind “Savage Good Boy” and “Be Sweet” from last year’s Jubilee. Taking the piano, Michelle Zauner also slayed a perfect fit cover of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.”
Jason Isbell followed with a condensed, but excellent set as the lineup’s special guest, teasing his full show on the ranch the following night. “Hope the High Road” and “What’ve I Done to Help” roared the crowd to sing along, while the largely acoustic close of “Cover Me Up” predictably destroyed the main stage audience.
But Willie and his boys remain the main event, and the new set up served well as almost a song swap between them. “In Loving Memory of Bobbie Nelson 1931-2022” projected on the back of the stage, and the more mellow arrangement fostered a sense of communion and even rejuvenation that extended to the crowd. “Whiskey River” and “Still Is Still Moving” still kicked off, but Micah delivered a surprise highlight with his new “If I Die When I’m High I’ll Be Halfway to Heaven,” inspired by an offhand quip from Willie and delivered as his father chuckled beside him. Lukas spun what could be the Luck Reunion theme with “Just Outside of Austin,” and as Willie’s voice warmed, they worked together through a medley of the songwriter’s incomparable hits.
As the familiar closing, stage-packed round of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I’ll Fly Away” swelled, it offered affirmation that Luck was indeed back, and that the Family Band endures.
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Luck Reunion, Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson, Japanese Breakfast, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Adia Victoria, Allison Russell, SXSW Music 2022