By Richard Skanse
Much like the fitness zealots who run every marathon actively looking forward to their next 26-mile endorphin binge, there are some people — a whole lot of them, apparently — who don’t just like but flat-out love going to music festivals. And God bless ’em, every one. They’re the never-jaded, never-wearied Energizer Bunny diehards who seem to genuinely thrive off of the endurance-testing rush of mainlining live music from an all-you-can-see-and-hear, multi-stage buffet, and the bigger, longer, and even hotter the event in question, the better.
These people are not crazy. In fact, I envy them. Maybe you do, too, if you can still remember how much damn fun you had at say, your very first Austin City Limits Music Festival, early ’90s Lollapalooza, or even South by Southwest, be it with or without a badge or wristband. Hell, you may even think you’re one of those people, with dozens of happy festival experiences under your belt and still no evidence of burnout. But unless you were conceived in a muddy field at Woodstock or born with the hearty genes of a Deadhead, odds are at some point you’ll go back to that dream buffet one time too many, and the inevitable is gonna hit you harder than the stank from the port-o-pottys on the last night of Bonnaroo: All of a sudden, no mater how much you may still love music or how many of your favorite artists’ names are crammed onto your dream lineup, the mere thought of spending another weekend hoofing it back and forth from stage to stage through teeming crowds of thousands sounds less appealing than an all-day visit to the DMV.
Yes, Festival Fatigue Syndrome (FFS) is a real thing, and it’s a bitch. Especially if you write about music for a living. It’s not fatal, of course, but it can really suck the joy out of doing something that should ostensibly be a blast. I’ve lived with FFS now for the better part of 15 years, and right or wrong, I’ve kinda always blamed it on Willie Nelson. Or rather, on the brutally hot, long summer day I spent waiting on “Willie time” for an interview with the legend during one of his Fourth of July Picnics. The eventual face-time with Willie on his bus was delightful, as one might expect, and I remember the lineup being especially good that year. But slow roasting for hours under a blazing Texas sun on a god-forsaken treeless lot in the Fort Worth Stockyards? That was a festival misery high that would go uncontested until the year the Zilker Park grounds at ACL were literally covered in human shit (aka “Dillo Dirt”).
I know — that’s a lot of tangential bitching to kick off a concert review; but context here, like location, is everything. I feel like I would be doing both Willie and his Luck Reunion a disservice if I just came right out and called it the most blissfully near-perfect all-day music event I’ve ever experienced. Because true as that may be, I really don’t want to just preach to the converted here, be they the any-festival-is-a-great-time lot or the diehard Willie-for-President crowd. Instead, this testimony is specifically aimed at all my fellow FFS sufferers out there: Making the trek out to the old Western movie set located on Willie Nelson’s ranch just outside of Austin in the thick of SXSW might not permanently cure what ails you, but it will for damn sure go a long ways toward reminding you what it feels like to spend hours on end in a festival setting and actually enjoy every minute of it.
Now, full disclosure: Unless you’re a media hack (like me), or perhaps chummy enough with one of the artists or sponsors to finagle your way onto the guest list, admission to this particular party is neither cheap nor easy. General admission tickets this year were $75 (plus service fees, tax, and a gotcha extra $20 for parking), and in the interest of dodging “scalpers, bots and losers,” they’re sold in small batches at a time via “pop-up sales” accessible only via passcodes released sporadically on social media. And they’re all long gone before the day of the event — all 3,000 of them.
Yes, that’s right: The Luck Reunion caps attendance — paid attendance, at least — at 3,000. As in, 1,000 fewer people than Willie could play to himself at the outdoor amphitheater at John T. Floore’s Counry Store in Helotes. Or, say, 72,000 fewer people than the average daily attendance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. And if you’re thinking that little number might play a very big part in what makes this party a helluva good hang, well, bingo.
Of course, the free drinks don’t hurt, either. And by that I mean all the drinks. Ice-cold bottled spring water? Well, obviously, because what outdoor festival with a conscience would charge for H2O? (Trick question, that one.) But adult libations like beer and vodka, bourbon, tequila, and gin cocktails? Those are all free in Luck, too — not counting tips, of course. Food on the other hand you do have to pay for, but the menu options are both varied and authentically Austin gourmet food truck hip, offering everything from BBQ and tacos to hot chicken, Thai, and whatever vegetarians eat. One popular vendor was even serving up $14 Maine-style lobster rolls, presumably just like the ones the hippies and rednecks used to chow down on between sets back in the old Armadillo World Headquarters days.
But let’s be honest here: Although nobody in their right mind would expect a behemoth festival like ACL or Coachella to hand out unlimited free booze to every attendee, the Luck Reunion is hardly the only party with an open bar to be found in the greater Austin area during SXSW. But it is the only one that makes you feel like you’re crashing a casual family get-together held in the backyard playground of an eccentric multi-millionaire American icon, and that alone makes it worth every minute of the 40-mile trek outside of town, far from the maddening crowds (and traffic) of downtown and South Congress.
And the music? Well, suffice it to say that the Luck team gets that part pretty much perfect, too. Again, a killer lineup alone isn’t always enough to psych me up for these kind of deals these days, but sometimes all it really takes is one name. On this bill, that name was Arizona singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, whose 2016 album Honest Life and forthcoming May Your Kindness Remain (out this week) are two of my favorite records of the last five years. At first I was a little disappointed to learn she was only playing as part of a four-person song swap — until I noticed that the host was none other than one of my all-time favorite American songwriters, Kevn Kinney of the great Atlanta rock band Drivin’ N Cryin’. The only bummer was that the set kicked off right as the gates opened at 11 a.m., and it took me a few minutes of frantically running around the replica old Western town (built in the ’80s for Willie’s Red Headed Stranger movie) just to find the Revival Tent stage. I consequently ended up missing the first round entirely and half of Andrews’ wonderful “I’ve Hurt Worse,” but made it just in time to hear Kinney sing his resplendent “Sun-Tangled Angel Revival,” followed a few songs later by a terrific tribute to Ian McLagan to be featured, Kinney said, on the next Drivin’ N Cryin’ record, produced by fellow Luck performer Aaron Lee Tasjan.
After that, I made a quick mental note of a couple of other set times on the schedule but resolved to spend the rest of the day until Willie (10 p.m.) roaming freestyle. That strategy can get old pretty quick at larger festivals where there’s a lot more ground to cover, but there are only four stages at the Luck Reunion and once you figure out the lay of the land, they’re all at most two or three minutes walk from each other — provided if you don’t pop into the saloon to wet your whistle along the way or stop to peruse the various tables selling merch, art, clothing, or Willie’s Reserve branded paraphernalia. There were a lot of artists I missed entirely on my walkabout, but no one I did see failed to impress. Chief among the day’s early standouts were Austin’s own Erika Wennerstrom (currently on a break from fronting the Heartless Bastards) and David Ramirez, with Wennerstrom taking confident command of the main stage belting out brand new solo numbers like the majestic “Extraordinary Love” and Ramirez sounding equally potent on the smaller “Back to the Source” stage, nailing every haunting note of “Twins,” from last year’s stunning We’re Not Going Anywhere.
In between Wennerstrom and Ramirez, I headed over to the chapel, hoping to hear another song swap — this one led by Ray Wylie Hubbard and featuring Kelly Willis, Cody Canada, Tyler Childers, and John Doe. That proved a bit of a challenge, though, what with the Luck chapel being about the size of a small living room and the long line of people (long for this festival, anyway) already hoping to squeeze in. Fortunately, I managed to sneak a peek and listen through the back door, catching a teasing snippet of Willis singing the title track to her forthcoming album, Back Being Blue, and Canada’s “1,800 Miles,” a song that will be on the next Departed record. “It’s called 3, and we just finished it,” Canada told me later, adding with a proud grin, “Jamie Lin (Wilson) actually sings on that track — she was kind of our secret weapon on the album.”
With hindsight, I wish I had stuck around the chapel to hear more of the next act, Jade Bird, the 20-year-old, pixie-sized county spitfire from London, England who would end up being named one of the three winners of this year’s SXSW Grulke Prize. But I opted for a taco break instead, then headed back across “town” for subsequent main stage sets by Aaron Lee Tasjan, Particle Kid, and Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Tasjan, rocking a right spiffy ’70s Elton John-meets-Clockwork Orange look and an equally fun batch of Cheap Trick/ELO-worthy Beatlesque power pop, set the bar mighty high for the rest of the evening, but Lukas Nelson — hands down the most electrifying performer of the day and for my money one of the best natural-born rock stars of his generation — leapt over it (literally) with ease. Seriously, somebody give this guy and his band their national spotlight on Saturday Night Live already: it’s long overdue.
As blown away as I was by Promise of the Real, I probably should have paid a little closer attention to Particle Kid’s set, too — but somehow I didn’t make the connection that that was actually Lukas’ brother and sometime bandmate, Micah Nelson. That kid’s clearly got a lot of natural musical talent to play with, too, but the angsty, gothy bent of songs like “Everything is Bullshit” — equal parts subdued Trent Reznor, pissy Morrissey, and Wednesday Addams — seemed a bit out of step with the day’s otherwise prevailingly copacetic good vibe. To give him a fairer shot, I think I’d need to hear him in a completely different setting. Or maybe when I was 20 years younger.
After his main set, Lukas and the rest of Promise of the Real stuck around for a few songs backing Kurt Vile, who caught me completely unawares with a mesmerizing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Roll on John” (from his last album of original songs, 2012’s Tempest). When Margo Price, the chapel stage’s surprise-but-not-really 9 p.m. headliner, later played another two Dylan songs back to back (“Most Likely You Go Your Way” and “One More Cup of Coffee”), I had to nervously check my phone to make sure the Bard hadn’t up and died. Happily reassured that we still had two living Traveling Wilburys, I headed back towards the main stage for Willie, with a quick stop at the “Back to the Source” stage along the way for a couple of songs by Nikki Lane (like Price, another “surprise” guest.)
Now, after having surprised myself by keeping that old FFS largely at bay for the better part of 11 hours — not to mention realizing that it’d been more than a decade since the last time I’d seen the living legend in concert — I settled in to “Whiskey River” fully intending to stay for Willie’s whole set, and to stand as close to the front of the stage as I could get, too. But “Beer for My Horses” rearing its regrettable head three songs in pushed me back to the rear of the crowd, and from there I might have bolted for the exit if not for the saving grace of hearing Sister Bobbie playing “Down Yonder.” Then Willie introduced the band, including both of his sons and guest Ray Benson (“the world’s tallest guitar player”), and called out for a little “Texas Flood.” Lukas sang that one, but after he and Benson took turns trading stinging electric guitar solos, Willie and his battered old pal Trigger stepped up and dutifully showed them what’s what.
That was the note I wanted to leave Willie on, so I did — perfectly content to let him sing my way out to the parking lot with “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “It’s All Going to Pot,” “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and an especially spry sounding “Still Not Dead.” The sound sorta dropped out after that, but by the time I was in my truck and finally rolling out of Luck, I could just make out the last couple of verses of what sounded like the whole Reunion family singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
Like I said: Just about perfect. And God and Willie willing, I’ll be back.