At times SXSW can feel like a beautiful mess, a dance of chaos that is inevitable when the cultural universe convenes on one city. All of this is good, of course, but if you’re tackling the whole week, there are times when it’s good to step back from the madness and relax. Taking place on Willie Nelson’s storied ranch in the Texas Hill Country about an hour west of Austin, the Luck Reunion was exactly that. The annual shindig brings some of the biggest names at SXSW out along with a somewhat intimate crowd to enjoy their music. For artists and fans alike, the Luck Reunion is both a peaceful retreat and one hell of a party.
Compared to the weather blowout of last year’s event that essentially cancelled the whole day, this year’s Luck Reunion couldn’t have been better. Music lovers wandered the old Western ghost town between the Revival Tent, Chapel, and main stage, stopping off for tasty libations in between sets. One of the early highlights of the day was the Texas Gentlemen’s hootenanny that saw well known figures of Texas music popping onstage for a song or two and getting backed by a truly superb gang of musicians. There was Midlake’s Eric Pulido performing Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Asleep at the Wheel’s lovable frontman Ray Benson leading the band in a spirited take of “Miles and Miles of Texas” and “Get Your Kicks On Route 66”, and those were just some of the artists who made appearances.
Over at the main stage, the ladies reigned supreme for much of the day, a reign that began with a sharp set from indie folk band Big Thief. Valerie June would later take to the stage looking spectacular as always. Sporting a bedazzled red sequins dress, polka dot stockings, and topped off by a head full of bouncy, medusa-like curls, the Tennessean songstress looked like a star and performed like one too. She opened the set with a solo rendition of the anthemic “Rain Dance”, displaying her unorthodox guitar and vocal techniques before being joined by a backing band for a trio of songs from her critically acclaimed 2013 release, including title track “Pushin’ Against a Stone”. Miss June had some surprises in store, however, unveiling three new songs and giving a nod to the host of the day’s festivities with an a cappella version of Willie’s “Uncloudy Day” which saw the young artist moved to tears. Her overwhelmingly positive message seemed to go over well with the crowd and the set was a standout of the day.
Margo Price was a breakout act at last year’s SXSW, and this time she returned a star. Her tight set of outlaw country tunes turned the fest into a dance hall and one of her new songs, a piano boogie honky tonk romp, signaled that we can only expect big things from her in the future. She also included some appropriate and well-chosen covers, taking on Commander Cody’s sad and twangy “Down to Seeds and Stems Again Blues” and Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”.
Back at the tent, rising star Brent Cobb held a commanding presence with a set that fused together cosmic country and Southern rock. The long-hairs engulfed the crowd with shimmering twang and soaring three-part harmonies as if the offspring of Lynyrd Skynrd started a country band. Cobb’s songs about working in coal mines and living that laid back country life were refreshingly devoid of red party cups, swinging dick trucks, tight pants, and blond bimbos. Instead, songs like “Down Home” made you want to saddle up to a plate of biscuits and gravy. By the end of his set, it was obvious that the success of thoughtful and more cosmic country acts like Sturgill Simpson have made listeners more interested in artists like Cobb.
As the sun began falling behind the hills, the main stage took on the feel of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue as the Felice Brothers played their own rowdy tunes before welcoming Conor Oberst and M. Ward to the stage. For two and a half hours all of the musicians swapped songs, playing their own material, covering others, and generally have a grand old time on stage. Basking in the Hill Country under the big Texas sky while soaking up incredible music, you quickly realized that life just couldn’t be much better.
Following underwhelming sets by what felt like each member of his family, at long last the time had come to be blessed by the presence of our generous host, Willie Nelson, who looked spry as ever and wasted no time at all before busting into “Whiskey River”. The living legend happily obliged the throng of thirsty Willie fanatics with a slew of classics including “Beer For My Horses”, “Good-Hearted Woman”, and of course “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”, turning the evening into a full- blown Willie Nelson sing along.
The set was slightly abbreviated, however, and it seemed as though by the time Willie had his trusty guitar Trigger warmed up and the Django Reinhardt licks were starting to flow, the set was already winding down. Even with such a short set, when Willie got to the gospel classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” the crowd was in high spirits, happy to be given the chance to enjoy this musical retreat in the Hill Country amongst so much incredible talent.
Additional reporting by Tim O’Neill.
All photos in gallery shot by Arthur VanRooy.
Neil Ferguson will be hitting the pavement all week at SXSW. For live updates, drunk tweets, and snarky commentary of the madness, make sure you follow him on Twitter: @musicjournzo
Stay tuned to Glide Magazine for more coverage of SXSW 2017!