SXSW Day Fest: Willie Nelson's Luck Reunion
Shelter from the storm in Luck, Texas
By Doug Freeman,
12:35PM, Sat. Mar. 19, 2016
When the official word came to shut down all performances and for the crowd to take immediate shelter, everything moved incredibly quickly in Willie Nelson’s fake movie-set town of Luck. The imminent storm, however, did not.
At about 5:20pm Friday evening, crew and officials took to the stages to warn everyone that a major storm was bearing down on the Luck Reunion and would hit in approximately 10 minutes. Located 30 miles outside of Austin on Nelson’s Spicewood ranch, the makeshift Western town had provided an idyllic and surreal setting for what has become one of the best nonaffiliated events during SXSW. Nonetheless, the charm of the old storefronts and barns offered little in the way of security from a major storm, and as the skies darkened, thoughts turned to the town’s 2014 destruction by tornado-force winds.
Those that didn’t take to their cars or the buses and depart huddled under what cover they could find, but as stages were covered and vendors quickly broke down, the storm only continued to linger on the horizon in ominous lightning flashes. For three hours, nothing moved in Luck.
Undaunted by the storm, which only swept in briefly and with little effect, those that remained were rewarded with a memorable night. Canadians Alberta Cross, their main stage set pulled shortly after starting, unpacked their instruments in the Beer Garden’s barn and played an impromptu show. They were followed by the Black Lillies, who earlier in the afternoon had scorched the main stage with a rootsy soul. Artists and fans packed in tightly and carried on acoustic sing-alongs as the rain showered against the tin roofs.
Likewise, after two hours on hold, Lissie emerged in the Revival Tent, where more fans sheltered. In the dark, the songwriter delivered an intimate, unplugged performance far removed from the pop swell of her most recent album, My Wild West.
When the all-clear was finally given around 9pm, the main stage was permanently shut down, and set schedules in disarray. Jenny Lewis convened in the tiny chapel that held no more than 75 fans, and the Revival Tent swelled for a fantastic, quick run of songs from Joe Pug, Margot Price, and Parker Millsap.
Billy Joe Shaver closed out the night in the chapel as fans packed up against the windows outside, and Nelson proved characteristically undeterred as he shifted his headlining set to the Revival Tent to close a chaotic day in memorable fashion.
Nelson’s Luck Reunion, rebranding the Heartbreaker Banquet and now in its fifth year, remains an exceptional and unique event despite this year’s havoc. Performances earlier in the afternoon proved memorable, including an intimate songwriter swap that closed with Jonny Fritz, Andrew Combs, Robert Ellis, Sam Outlaw, and T. Hardy Morris covering Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.”
East Nashville’s Aaron Lee Tasjan perfectly set up Ray Wylie Hubbard in the Revival Tent for a shot of blistering blues, and Canadian songwriter Daniel Romano commenced the chapel performances with his nasally Dylan-esque twang. On the main stage, Oklahoma quintet Horse Thief rang with a melodic, My Morning Jacket reverb and psych roots, and Little Rock, Ark., fivepiece Amasa Hines broiled funk and reggae-inflected grooving jams.
John Fullbright conquered the afternoon best before the storm set in, delivering a powerhouse set of older cuts “Jericho,” “Satan and St. Paul,” and “Gawd Above.”
The storm may have gutted the lineup – canceling Blitzen Trapper, Lucius, and expected special guest Kacey Musgraves – but it couldn’t impede the event’s heart.