The Austin Chronicle

Kermit the Frog, Tyler Childers Play Willie’s Luck Reunion

By Doug Freeman, March 15, 2024, 10:29am, Earache!

Clouds threatened overhead all day at the 12th annual Luck Reunion, but unlike last year’s forced delay, the rain held off in the Hill Country. Perhaps it was in deference to Willie Nelson’s special guest, who opened the headliner’s set seated on a stool beside him: Kermit the Frog, singing “Rainbow Connection.”

The unexpected opening, foregoing Willie’s trademark “Whiskey River” kickoff, left Luck as silent and reverent as it’s ever been, and capped another impressive edition of the day-long festival held on Nelson’s Spicewood ranch.

Across four main stages, the day’s music generally patterned into four segments: early breakout songwriters, afternoon jams, evening collaborations, and nighttime headliners. The exception proved to be the tiny chapel, which packed its 50-person capacity for big names all day, including Lukas Nelson, Claud, and John Oates.

Folk Uke set the tone early in the Revival tent with Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie barbing tongue-in-cheek critiques, while Austin-via-Paris honky-tonker Theo Lawrence broke in the Saloon stage with a throwback Bakersfield sound supporting his deep croon and yelping twang. Likewise, North Carolinian Lou Hazel provided an early highlight on the mainstage with his sharp John Prine-esque songwriting.


Luck’s three Artist-on-the-Rise finalists proved the biggest breakouts though, as Jobi Riccio, Mali Velasquez, and Ogi each delivered very different but equally compelling sets on the Barn stage. Riccio, who missed her official SXSW showcase on Tuesday due to strep throat, pulled from last year’s debut Whiplash with a powerful voice and polished melodies, while Ogi delivered jazz-flecked R&B off debut Monologues with remarkable poise and charisma. Velasquez’s contrasting raw and minimal indie style hinged upon her quietly quaking voice; bedroom heartbreak, caught in her cracking howl, played perfectly in covering Karen Dalton’s “Something on Your Mind.”

The jamming afternoon was led by California’s Próxima Parada slinging smooth stoner-soul and a sax-packing soul spectacular from Durand Jones, but Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country scorched the mainstage best. The Nashville quartet ripped cuts from last year’s Reflector, with Donato rolling wild-eyed behind his blistering Telecaster while trading breakdowns with the keyboardist.

Luck Reunion continued its tradition of surprising collaborations as Zella Day and Jesse Woods teamed up under the name Chaparelle, and Lucius combined forces with Dawes. Walker Lukens won the day behind a slew of special guests turning Texas tunes in support of his Texas Wild project. Backed by the Texas Gentlemen, Lukens welcomed Uncle Roy and Spice (“Say My Name”), Sarah Jaffe (“Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”), David Ramirez (a funked-up “All My Ex’s Live In Texas”), Rainbow Girls (“Goodbye Earl”), Toadies bandleader Vaden Todd Lewis (“Since U Been Gone”), and Steve Earle (“White Freightliner Blues”) among the guest singers. Matthew Logan Vasquez closed the party roaring “Amarillo Highway.”

Other highlights across the day included Evan Honer representing the wave of gritty, emotionally charged country unlocked behind Zach Bryan’s success; Old Crow Medicine Show’s high-kicking, hat-waving, hot-string fury; and Nick Shoulders’ rockabilly croon and yodeling howl. Psychedelic soul pioneer Swamp Dogg previewed new album Blackgrass in his iconoclastic, uncompromising style: funky, cursing, and provocative even at 81. And the much-buzzed Red Clay Strays shook the barn with their rocked-out headlining set, even if singer Brandon Coleman still pulls a little heavy on the snarling Elvis intensity.

Tyler Childers played top bill in setting up Nelson’s annual family-band headline. The Kentucky star delivered a tight hour that spanned his career from early holler barn-burners (“Whitehouse Road”), howling ballads (“All Your’n”) psych-laced country jams (“House Fire”), hillbilly gospel (“Old Country Church”), and latest “Rustin’ in the Rain.” Childers continues to put together one of the most interesting catalogs in country music, and has honed his show to seamlessly thread all the elements.

As South by Southwest has rostered fewer country and Americana acts over the past few years, Luck Reunion has filled the void, and continues to weave the expansive contemporary roots scene.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.