The Austin Chronicle

As Willie Looks to 90, Austin Stars Shine at Luck Reunion

By Doug Freeman, March 18, 2023, 12:54pm, Earache!

Postponed a day due to the Thursday storms that rolled through Central Texas, the 11th annual Luck Reunion regrouped on Friday no worse for wear.

The crowds still packed the movie set western town on Willie Nelson’s ranch and only some slight lineup changes needed to be made. Most prominently, ethereal pop singer Ethel Cain couldn’t make the new date, but Margo Price added a set alongside her South by Southwest keynote. With the glut of exceptional artists maintained across the five stages, the day-long fest still proved one of the most exceptional events of the week.

The Luck Reunion consistently manages to position ahead of the curve in showcasing new artists, and this year delivered several early highlights. UK outfits the Heavy Heavy and the Golden Dregs both impressed – with the former quintet’s retro-psych blast and Laurel Canyon harmonies blowing out the barn stage, and the latter quieting the saloon behind the slow pull of Benjamin Woods’ low, languid croon. Likewise, Pearla mesmerized the chapel with a full fivepiece band offering up fresh 2023 debut Oh Glistening Onion, the Nighttime is Coming.

If the date push-back had one impact, it showed in the constant long lines for the reduced number of food vendors, which rivaled the waits to get into the small stages in the chapel and saloon. Still, spirits remained high on the ranch as the early afternoon cold gave way to the sun, seemingly perfectly timed with Devon Gilfillian’s burst of soul on the mainstage.

With the opening piano lick of “Amarillo Highway,” Terry Allen set the mainstage bar high early on with his all-star Panhandle Mystery Band and winding existential tunes. It was matched only by fellow Lubbock legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore closing out the revival tent later in the evening, backed by his son Colin’s rocking quintet West Texas Exiles. The set included a moving tribute to the late Jo Carol Pierce with “Reunion.”

The revival tent also hosted the Black Opry Revue, making its debut at Luck with Aaron Vance, Sug Daniels, Nikki Morgan, and San Antonio’s Nicky Diamonds. The celebratory song swap highlighted Vance’s deep country cut with “Cabin Fever” and Daniel’s spark plug energy on “Kintsugi,” but the contrast between Morgan’s powerhouse bluesy vocals and Diamonds’ smoothly pitched ballads captured the diversity of the emerging Americana voices. Ivory Coast native Peter One likewise expanded the genre behind his gentle soulful country, previewing his comeback album Come Back To Me with a hot band of Nashville players.

It’s never clear which side of Sierra Ferrell will show up on stage – the wild Nashville rebel or old-time West Virginia picker – but supported by fiddle, upright bass, and mandolin, the latest Americana star played her mainstage set traditionally behind her deep twang. The raucousness came out later, though, as she closed out the star-studded Leon Russell tribute on “With a Little Help From My Friends,” unloading Janis Joplin-eque howls. The remembrance, led by Beau Bedford and Robert Ellis on dueling keys, trotted out Margo Price, Zella Day, Taylor Hanson, Kelsey Wilson, and Charlie Sexton, as well as Russell’s Asylum Choir co-conspirator Marc Benno.

Local artists carried this year’s Luck Reunion though, including Band of Heathens backing Margo Price as she dipped into old favorites (“Tennessee Song,” “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”) and covers (“Shotgun Willie,” “Ragged Old Truck”). BoH also offered their own “Don’t Let the Darkness” from newly released Simple Things. Kelsey Wilson likewise slayed the revival tent, which doubled up on Wild Child and Sir Women. The former act showed off their edgier new sound before the same band shifted into the latter’s soul-blasted dance party grooves. Spoon also carried the mainstage as full-on rock stars, setting up for the Luck host’s headlining set.

Even Nelson seemed to pull a little extra in preparation for his upcoming 90th birthday bash in LA, playing twenty minutes longer than expected. The band was the most stripped down he’s had in years, supported only by Kevin Smith on bass, Billy English with minimal drum set up, and Ray Benson and son Micah Nelson accompanying on guitar. Once his voice and fingers warmed, the seated Nelson reveled in being back onstage, trucking quickly through his barrage of hits and several new tunes, including the Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton co-write “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die” and country classic “Tiger By the Tail” from his new album of Harlan Howard songs.

Rolling into his 90th year, Nelson remains as iconic as ever, not the least because of his championing of new voices. Even as he plans to blow out the candles in California, the Luck Reunion continues to be his most impressively diverse gathering of legends and emerging artists.

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