In a Global Crisis, Luck Presents Writes a New Concert Promotions Standard
With a little luck, Ellee Fletcher Durniak and Matt Bizer thrive at improvising impossible situations
Austin, March 12, 2020: A week out from the fifth anniversary of the Luck Reunion, Matt Bizer and Ellee Fletcher Durniak still anticipated moving forward with the event. City Hall shut down South by Southwest six days earlier due to COVID-19 precautions, but artists and fans alike planned to trek to Willie Nelson's Spicewood ranch nevertheless for one of the crown jewel convergences on Austin's annual music calendar.
"At that point, there were no cases in Travis County and we were granted our permit to move forward," recalls Bizer. "We thought, 'It's not here yet and we're a small event, so we'll be OK.' Rodeo [Austin] was in the same boat, where we all thought we were going to squeeze past it by the skin of our teeth. At that time, nobody knew how fast it was spreading.
"Then, Thursday morning, I got the call from the [Travis County] judge [Sarah Eckhardt], and it was just escalating way faster than any of us thought."
"We were obviously devastated and terrified, but in hindsight, thank God we didn't exacerbate the issue by having our event," adds Durniak. "At the time, there was just so little info out about it, but we were very grateful to the county that they caught onto it so quickly."
After sending out cancellation notices, Bizer and Durniak immediately turned their attention to what they could stage instead. By the end of the weekend, they pulled together a plan to host a livestream event wherein dozens of artists performed from the safety of their homes across the nation. Durniak rallied to quickly book artists and handle publicity, and Bizer tackled substantial technical challenges surrounding the production, and by Thursday, March 19 – the original Luck Reunion date – they were live with 'Til Further Notice from Arlyn Studios.
"When we called and said we're still going to do something and not just be shut down, everyone said, 'Let's do it!'" Bizer attests. "Everything was getting canceled, so people needed something to look forward to. Everybody jumped on board really fast."
"Support poured in immediately, and looking back, we're even more grateful because we didn't know how deep in the weeds we were with the pandemic and for how long," says Durniak. "At the time, everyone was just so shaken, especially in the entertainment industry, so being able to have that moment of community was reassuring to Matt and myself about what our community is. We kicked off a year-plus of people coming together and connecting with one another to get through a really tough time."
Broadcast across Twitch, Facebook, and Instagram, the four-hour event hosted by Ray Benson starred Neil Young, Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams, Margo Price, and of course, Willie Nelson & the Family Band. Viewership totaled over 2.5 million. Equally eye-opening, 'Til Further Notice set a standard for livestreaming performances that charted a path forward for music through an industry shutdown.
In short order, Luck Presents became the go-to production company for hosting online events. In addition to their own shows like the 4/20 Come & Toke It and Willie's 4th of July Picnic, voted Best Livestream Event by local denizens at last month's Austin Music Awards, they also produced Paul Simon's A Night for Austin benefit, Farm Aid, HAAM Day performances, and most recently, partnered with the Long Center for the Good Vibes Only and Long Live Music in-person series on the lawn in front of the river.
Though Durniak and Bizer eschew credit in deference to their fans and artists, their events epitomize the chemistry the two share. They thrive at improvising impossible situations with a gritty determination to make any experience work via an enthusiasm that rallies others to their cause. Bizer, 35, and Durniak, 30, anticipate each other with a synchronicity as if they were a couple, and complement the others' expertise to move fast with focus. Perhaps most importantly, they exude a sense of fun even amid the stress of production challenges, a trust in each other and their team that allows them to experiment with unique, ambitious ideas and marvel at their own results.
"When we wrapped 'Til Further Notice, we kind of looked at each other and thought, 'Was this the best Luck we've ever had?'" laughs Durniak. "It was just so representative of the culture that we are lucky enough to be a part of – that community spirit that built Austin."
The Island of Misfit Toys
Thirty miles west of Austin, Willie's Nelson's Luck, Texas, nestles in the rolling Hill Country of the singer's 700-acre ranch. A prop town built in 1986 for the movie Western Red Headed Stranger, Luck almost didn't survive its initial summer. The original script by local screenwriter Bill Wittliff, who also penned Nelson films Honeysuckle Rose and Barbarosa, called for the town to burn, but Nelson wouldn't allow it.
Durniak grew up playing on the property. The daughter of promoter Freddy Fletcher, granddaughter of "Sister" Bobbie Nelson, and grandniece to Willie, she enjoyed the run of the town. Staging plays in the saloon for family and friends suited her.
Although from New Braunfels, Bizer met Durniak when they both lived in New York. She worked for Austin agency Giant Noise, supporting publicity for music festivals, and he ran a video studio called Robot Fondue. They became friends through the ATX acts touring through the city.
When Durniak and Bizer teamed up in 2012 to throw an industry party during SXSW, she suggested Luck as a destination. Both were working high-profile events like Perez Hilton's annual industry party here, but they wanted to host a show counter to the often frantic music melee of March Madness in the state capital. The cachet of Nelson's ranch and promise of a reprieve for artists and fans doubled the anticipated 500-person party headlined that first year by Phosphorescent and Gary Clark Jr.
"Neither of us came from producing events, so we just started recruiting anybody we knew that knew how to do something," admits Bizer. "We had this weird team like the island of misfit toys. And we had ideas, but none of us knew what we were going to run into or how hard it would be. The first few years, none of us even really knew how to do booking.
"Again, we just called everyone we knew."
The Nelson family and team took notice of their success, and after Willie headlined the fourth year of the event, agreed to partner with Durniak and Bizer to help produce the event.
"We had never really invested in it as a business," laughs the latter. "It was just being run as a party, but then the family was like, 'If you're going to do this for real and keep growing this and Willie is going to play it, it has to be a business and you have to figure out how to run this thing.'"
Supported by Nelson's team, the pair began to expand their ambitions. They called the festival Luck Reunion in a nod to the paterfamilias' 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion that evolved into his annual 4th of July Picnic. A new scene of outsider, outlaw country artists fell right in step.
As the Luck Reunion grew into a local SXSW week destination, Luck Presents branched into singular events like a 2019 riverboat show at AmericanaFest in Nashville (see "AmericanaFest Is SXSW for Roots Genres," Music, Sept. 17, 2019). The brand quickly garnered a reputation as a bellwether for rising acts when the Americana genre emerged to define the past decade's roots revival. From Valerie June and Elle King in 2013 to Mavis Staples and Billy Strings in 2019, the Luck lineups stack legends with artists on the verge of sensational breakouts.
By the beginning of 2020, Bizer and Durniak moved back to Austin to establish Luck Presents headquarters in an office space off South Lamar. They also officially took over production of all Nelson's events, including the Picnic.
"More than anything, they have our backs," offers Bizer of the partnership. "They think about things in a much larger perspective, and they give a lot of feedback, but it's also been a two-way street. We've learned a lot from being around and experiencing and understanding how they look at the bigger picture, but at the same time they'll look at us and Luck as a little bit of a scouting grounds for their events.
"They give us a lot of freedom, but they've obviously kept an eye on us, and when we hit a boundary, they course correct, but they really let us do that naturally."
"They're notoriously tough, and have been in this business forever," adds Durniak. "We have so much respect for their community, too. We really value this culture we came into and are trying to revitalize and keep it alive. It's an honor they're entrusting us to carry this legacy a little bit."
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
Every artist that plays a Luck event receives a custom designed silver ring. Its inspiration derives from the bands worn by Nelson's Family Band and connotes a community among the musicians. Chalk up another reason so many performers return after having outgrown Luck's relatively small stages.
"This is my favorite fucking hang of the year!" Elle King exclaimed from the mainstage of 2017's Luck Reunion, a sentiment echoed by the musicians and fans who rally behind Luck events.
"They really cultivate a family vibe with the artists, so the idea of having a reunion is very fitting because a lot of musicians return to perform or even just hang out," attests Erika Wennerstrom, who's played the Luck Reunion multiple times. "It's a special event that's really intimate and a breath of fresh air in getting away from the city and hustle of South by Southwest."
"It's a prestige to be a part of it, but it's also just like a damn family reunion," says Paul Cauthen, involved with the event from its outset. "All my dearest friends in the business are out there, and being able to do different things or duets always happens at Luck, so I always try to bring in an oddball. Really, though, the rock stars of Luck are Ellee and Matt. Those two are the diamonds in the Luck ground rough."
Luck Presents focuses as much on its talent pool as they do their devoted fans. They established the Luck Embassy, a program to support musicians through partnerships with their sponsors, and last year set up the nonprofit Luck Family Foundation. In addition to helping artists adjust to livestreaming during the pandemic, they've raised over $3 million and aim to grow the Foundation even more.
Through that emphasis on community, Luck Presents represents both continuity and evolution of Willie Nelson's brand and ethos. This month, they're branching into new territory once again, expanding last year's Come & Toke It event into a summit celebrating the self-declared "High Holidays" spanning from 4/20 though Willie's birthday on April 29. The four-day virtual summit, called Planting the Seed, begins streaming April 26, and wrangles Nathaniel Rateliff to host a mix of comedy and music, alongside discussions of cannabis policy and education.
"We're trying to preserve Luck and also the culture of it," explains Bizer. "People are doing amazing stuff now, so as much as we need to hold onto the past and we're all obviously super nostalgic, we also want to keep that type of music and culture and identity moving forward. Right now, we're renovating buildings and working close with the family on what a plan looks like for the longer term, and all of that is because we want the story to be able to be told."
While eager to revive the Luck Reunion next March, the past year opened new avenues for its promoters, who now boast a full-time staff of seven. The company maintains its scrappy and experimental attitude to try new things and create remarkable experiences.
"We're really excited to get people back on stage again, but taking away from this last year, it's also exciting to think of all the opportunities we'll have to use what we learned this year to mix it up," offers Durniak. "There is a great opportunity to bring the Luck experience to a much wider audience."
Willie Nelson’s High Holidays streams at www.luckreunion.com beginning April 26.
Draw of the Luck: Five Unforgettable Performances
"We're pretty unapologetic in our request for people's time," laughs Ellee Fletcher Durniak of Luck Presents' events. Their productions intend to provide escapes where fans can focus on the music in an atmosphere that exudes VIP without being exclusive. Here are some of their most memorable moments.
Valerie June (2013/2017)
Before the release of her 2013 label debut Pushin' Against a Stone, a mostly unknown Valerie June stunned a packed crowd in Luck's tiny micro chapel. The Tennessee folk singer's extraordinary performance heralded a powerful voice, which returned to the main stage in 2017 in tears as she performed "Uncloudy Day" in dedication to her recently deceased father.
Lissie/Black Lillies (2016)
A fierce thunderstorm shut down the Luck Reunion in 2016, so artists took shelter across the ranch and impromptu performances ensued. The Black Lillies hosted an acoustic jam in the barn, while Lissie raised the blacked-out Revival Tent with a powerfully intimate unplugged set.
Billy Joe Shaver & Willie Nelson (2017)
The Family Band's closing of the Luck Reunion every year brings a slew of the day's artists back onstage, but none topped Billy Joe Shaver joining in 2017. The original honky-tonk hero delivered a rare and joyous romp of his "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me" alongside Nelson.
Mavis Staples (2019)
Mavis Staples (pictured above) stole the show when she headlined the entirely female-dedicated side stage at the last Reunion. At the finale, the then-80-year-old icon packed the stage with nearly every female artist on the lineup for an exuberant rendition of the Band's "The Weight."
Old Crow Medicine Show (2019)
Taking fans on a two-hour riverboat cruise during Nashville's AmericanaFest struck as bold as their destination festival alongside SXSW, but OCMS embraced the setting's nostalgia with an raucous headline set. Bonus for an opening breakout performance from Katie Pruitt.
For a full gallery of Luck Reunion’s greatest images, see austinchronicle.com/photos.