Hot Luck Festival Brings Together Bands and Grilled Meat in Austin, TX (FESTIVAL REVIEW)

Last weekend’s popular food and music event, Hot Luck Festival returned to Austin (May 23-26) with bigger musical guests, more celebrity chefs and an expanded marquee grilled meat happening, Al Fuego. The festival is organized by Aaron Franklin (Franklin BBQ), James Moody (The Mohawk) and Mike Thelin (Feast Portland co-founder). Amid a warming Austin, Hot Luck featured barbecued meats, delicious desserts, cocktails, sake, beer, wine and more celebrity chefs than you could shake a stick at. The musical lineup, curated to compliment the festival included Leftover Salmon, Robert Ellis, Haybale, Croy and the Boys, Sunflower Bean, Lucero and Harlem among others.

To give readers an idea of how popular the fledgling event has become, advance tickets for the all-encompassing Whole Enchilada pass sold-out prior to the weekend. All three food events we attended had large, active crowds, expectation-exceeding great food, and top-notch music that was both entertaining and fit well with the food events. Bites were served at Mohawk shows. For example, Scholz Garten’s venison sausage bites were prepared for concert-goers at the Leftover Salmon show (more on that below).

Leftover Salmon (photo: Cody Cowan)

The lineup curation may have appeared haphazard with so many genres represented but each performance seemed well-suited for the party or venue the acts played starting with The Giddy Up welcome event at Mohawk on Thursday. The party featured longtime Austin performers Robert Ellis, Haybale and Croy and the Boys. Baum led off the festivities with his brand of Western-style singing and humor, lending the launch event an authentic Austin feel while guests grazed at food stations throughout the venue.

Robert Ellis (Photo: Cody Cowan)

Our favorites were Otoko’s melt-in-your mouth blue fin tuna sashimi. Chef Yoshi Okai and his team brought in a several hundred-pound fish and presented choice cuts of the massive bluefin tuna with a light, slightly spicy, soy-based sauce. Not going to lie, we posted up next to the station after sampling the delicious bites to grab a few extra helpings.

(Photo: Cody Cowan)

Other food items that stood out was Holy Roller Callie Speer’s Jagermeiser sno-cones. The Austin chef with a hot new(ish) West Sixth street area restaurant that does a bustling weekend brunch, had a whimsical display featuring the alcoholic sno-cones with tiny upside bottles alongside a box of individual Parliament cigarettes and matchbooks. The vibe Speer projected fit perfectly with her restaurant’s rocker theme.

We also marveled at the oyster and caviar boat set up by Regalis on the top deck of Mohawk next to Otoko. Staffers shucked oysters as attendees flocked to the station to try the enticing mollusks and fish roe being served. The display was visually impressive and elegantly simple.

Red Volkaert and Haybale hit the stage following Corey Baum. Volkaert is both a local legend and underrated guitarist who has held a weekly residency at Continental Club for years. His band features piano player Earle Poole Ball who toured with Johnny Cash for 20 years. Their rockabilly, Americana sounds resonated throughout the venue, spreading good vibes.

Friday evening’s Hi, How Are You? Backyard BBQ at Franklin was more expansive than the opening party with cocktail and and food stalls set up around the property and street surrounding the famous BBQ joint. BBQ stations from Franklin, amazing brick-oven fired empanadas from Houston’s Cuyo and pimento-cheese wontons from Tillamook Cheese that were like crack. As soon as fans ate one, they’d be seen circling back to the station for a second. There were so many food options it was a bit overwhelming. By the time we headed out to Mohawk for Colorado’s Leftover Salmon headlining set, our head was spinning and our stomach bulging with delicious, gourmet barbecue and bites. A delightful edible flower theme was prevalent in many of the dishes at the event.

When the veteran band Leftover Salmon comes up in conversation, we often remark that the group’s unique bluegrass fusion sounds more like bluegrass on acid with a traditional drum kit not found in standard bluegrass outfits. Indeed, the jam quartet rolled out a Dylan cover first set and a Grateful Dead tune second that reinforced their standing in the jam band community. After 30 years of playing the tight unit featuring Drew Emmott (mandolin, guitar), Vince Herman (guitar), Andy Thorn (banjo) dole out the jams in a seemingly effortless manner. Herman can often be seen broadly grinning during performances. Friday evening’s performance was no exception.

The Dylan cover, “Tangled Up in Blue” fit Leftover Salmon’s playing style perfectly as the group made the famous tune their own in typical Salmon fashion. The track lifted an already active crowd higher as hippies and cowboys alike danced in front of the stage despite the late spring evening warmth and humidity. Besides the usual smattering of hippies, all sorts of fans (foodies, Millennial singles and couples, along with a number of Hot Luck Whole Enchilada pass holders filed into Mohawk to see the Boulderites jam out in classic fashion.

Crowd favorites, “House of Cards” and “River’s Risin’” appeared in the setlist. The latter near the close of second set after the band once again rallied the Grateful Dead fans among the audience with a rousing rendition of “New Speedway Boogie.” Herman egged the crowd on in singing the chorus, at one point stopping his bandmates from singing to allow the crowd to take over on vocals.

The two-hour plus set featured monstrous solos from Emmett (on both guitar and mandolin) while keyboardist Erik Deustch did his best to steal the show with wickedly intricate organ and piano solos that ran the gamut from Dead-inspired organ freakouts to a drop dead, insane otherworldly synth solo that invoked the late Bernie Worrel (Talking Heads, Boosty Collins).

Saturday’s crown event, Al Fuego was held at privately-owned Wild Onion Ranch in far South Austin. The bucolic surroundings at the ranch which had large live oaks and mesquite trees along a winding creek enhanced the craft barbeque theme complete with vintage Cadilliacs, photo booths, tunes by Heart and Soul Soundsystem, a duo of DJ selectors who delve deep into Outlaw Country, Rock and similar genres to keep the party moving.

(Photo: Julia Keim)

We sampled incredible smoked, stuffed chicken wings from Cured (Portland), sushi from Uchi (Austin), desserts from Lenoir (Austin) and bacon/pineapple skewers with mole sauce from Kemuri among other delights. The sensory input from the various food stations, including out of this world pizza from Chris Bianco fired in a portable brick oven and still more now irresistible (despite a bulging gut) Tillamook pimento cheese wontons. Guests sampled tacos from red-hot Neuvo Mexican eatery Suerte (Austin) and sampled libations from a dizzying array of liquor, beer and wine purveyors spread throughout the grounds.

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