Once again the Heartbreaker Banquet returned to the dusty old Western town of Luck, Texas on Willie Nelson’s ranch outside Austin. Since 2012 this one-day event has functioned as an exclusive, invite-only offshoot of SXSW. Each year the organizers bring in a consistently impressive lineup composed mainly of established acts within the Americana and alt. country scene, and soon-to-breakout acts. The exclusivity of previous years has made Heartbreaker a relaxing retreat for industry insiders and musicians who need to escape the urban chaos of SXSW for a day. Folks mingle, catch bands, and soak in the stunning Texas Hill Country.
This year for the first time the Heartbreaker team decided to open it up to the public, selling tickets for what was actually quite a reasonable price (around $50) considering a lineup that included a headlining appearance from the Red-headed Stranger himself. The downside of letting the public in on Heartbreaker – at least for an elitist like myself – meant a much larger crowd, longer lines, and Budweiser in place of the numerous craft beer options provided in past years. But the upside is that more people got to experience this idyllic setting and bounce between a revival tent and a main stage for what is a basically a full on music festival with one of the best lineups around.
The first band we caught was Nashville-based Clear Plastic Masks, and there was no better act to kick off the festivities. Charismatic frontman Andrew Katz set what would be the tone for the day, bantering with the crowd and delivering jokes intermittently between rocking out with the group’s exciting blend of deep Southern soul and garage rock that manages to sound vintage and fresh all at once. Though their set ended prematurely due to a band member injury, Delta Spirit picked up right where they left off. The group reinvigorated the crowd with their driving, guitar-centered rhythms and the wailing howls of lead singer Matt Vasquez that bring to mind the vocal stylings off Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
Once we were all shot up with rock and roll we hurried across town to the revival tent stage just in time to catch the tail end of New Orleans outfit Deslondes, a group of young men who look as timeless as their music sounds. Playing a soulful and heartfelt brand of country gospel, Deslondes captivated the crowd and left their audience feeling as though they had just attended a sermon at a crowded country church somewhere down a Southern back road.
Back on the main stage the lovely Nikki Lane instantly won over at least the male portion of the crowd, wearing a beautiful dress of white lace with a sheared skirt that displayed her long legs and matching white panties. The music was good too. Lane made her way through a set of playful country-tinged bad girl tunes about smoking dope and getting into trouble, all of which came to a head when two police officers appeared sternly behind her and escorted her offstage, making everyone wonder if Lane just may be as wild as she makes out to be before it was made clear to be a funny stunt.
The young Leon Bridges, already on track to be one of this year’s SXSW breakout acts, channeled soul and doo-wop sounds akin to the likes of Sam Cooke. Looking like he stepped out of the era his music is influenced by, Bridges made a fan out of everyone with his silky crooning and charming back-up band. Bridges is clearly still new to performing live, but it will be exciting to see what happens when this natural talent blossoms into a fully formed entertainer.
Talking with people on the way out to the ranch it seemed as though one of the most anticipated acts of the day was Israel Nash, a recent Texas transplant who channels the landscape of his Dripping Springs habitat into his music. Nash himself describes his style as desert folklore. Indeed, his heady brew of Southern and psychedelic rock made Nash easily live up to the hype. So much so that by the time his set was finished you could hear the whispers of praise and astonishment sweeping through the crowd.
As the sun burned out behind the hills the town square filled up in anticipation for Willie, who would make his way onstage during a set from his son Lukas. The young Nelson’s band Promise of the Real injected the evening with the right kind of energy, playing a short set consisting of funk, soul and blues. When Willie did finally emerge he looked more excited than anyone as he grabbed his guitar and got right to picking. Seeing the 81-year old Nelson keeping pace and even solo with his son’s youthful rock band was a treat that continued well into his signature opener “Whiskey River”.
Willie could easily dip into a catalogue of songs spanning half a century, but he knows what the crowds want and gives them only the biggest hits. With sister Bobbie holding down the grand piano, Lukas on the ax, and Micah helping on drums, Willie led the band through classic favorites like “Always On My Mind,” “On the Road Again”, “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and “Good-Hearted Woman”. The Heartbreaker Banquet culminated appropriately enough when several generations of Nelsons and their various offspring joined Willie onstage for a family sing-a-long of the gospel standard “The Circle Won’t Be Broken”, a song that not only alludes to this legend’s legacy, but the warm, communal feeling of this one-of-a-kind event as a whole.
Willie and Lukas Nelson
Additional reporting by Tim O’Neill and Brandon Simnacher.
Photos by Arthur VanRooy.