photos and article by: Nathan Poppe
by: Nathan Poppe
It’s not easy to have a good time in Austin, Texas, during South By Southwest.
I’ve gone several times to shoot photos, and I usually end up completely exhausted and waking up just long enough to fall back asleep on a plate of breakfast tacos. It can be fun but the music festival portion of the event feels like work. Maneuvering through mind-numbing traffic, outsmarting thousands of tourists and trying to catch bands gets exceedingly more difficult every time I visit SXSW. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to drive several miles north of the Black Friday level of craziness that is downtown Austin and visit Spicewood, Texas.
Tucked away between hilly country roads, Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion music festival offered a peaceful, mostly successful alternative to SXSW. It’s the sort of festival where the host’s personality is louder than the music. Luck Reunion is on his land after all. In the VIP lounge, I was greeted with a pack of rolling papers and it didn’t seem weird for a second. Nelson’s branded marijuana business followed me on Instagram immediately after I tweeted from the festival. Luck Reunion attracts a very particular and Americana/weed-loving crowd that’s really there for the music more than anything. I’ve never met a friendlier festival crowd. Did I mention that Bill Murray was hanging around the festival, too?
Roughly 4,000 patrons attended the Luck Reunion, which is spread between three modestly-sized stages and somehow never feels crowded. A chapel, revival tent and main stage are only minutes apart from one another and feel like they were planted in an old Western movie set, complete with wooden facades and even a saloon. It didn’t hurt that there were couches and copious amounts of shade from trees to pad the concert experience.
Every set I saw was exceptional and Oklahoma talent had a strong showing with performances from Parker Millsap, John Moreland, John Fullbright, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Horse Thief. I felt a swell of pride hearing people buzz about who they were excited to catch. No less than 10 people were saying they had to hear Moreland’s set.
The only major hiccup came from Mother Nature when a thunderstorm spoiled a few sets, including a secret visit from Kacey Musgraves. Dressing for the weather was impossible Friday. Between the heat of the early afternoon and the wet, chilling storm, no outfit was safe from either sweat, cold or mud.
The sky opened up in the early evening and drenched the festival grounds. Total buzzkill. It was handled well though. Event organizers and security made sure everyone found cover and shooed people away from looting the bars filled with leftover bottles of booze. Instead of cheering for bands, patrons ooh’d and ahh’d at the lightning’s performance.
However, no amount of rain could totally hinder the Luck Reunion experience. Out of boredom and an enthusiasm for performing, many musicians started impromptu sets in barns, houses and even truck trailers. You can’t really put a price on moments that unscripted and unique. Jenny Lewis didn’t need to stay late into the night and play a rescheduled set in a cramped chapel, but she did.
“This is off the cuff, guys,” Lewis said to the crowd with a smile.
Surrounded by bandmates and family, she performed a brief acoustic set unlike anything you could hear at a big festival. Even the Luck Reunion’s merch booth had a personal touch. Each T-shirt was screenprinted in front of buyers and had to cool down before you could wear it.
That’s the mark of a festival that’s about more than bands or organizers scoring a paycheck. It really felt like a community, and I didn’t want to leave. However, the rain closed most of the food trucks, and I needed dinner around midnight. I left before Nelson capped off the festival at the overcrowded, muddy revival tent. The rain had shut down main stage where Nelson was scheduled to play but it was better than it not happening at all.
I left wanting more. I was exhausted again, but for the first time, I couldn’t wait to return to Texas next year. It wasn’t luck that made this festival great. It was hard work and a lineup of musicians that looked to be having just as much fun as the patrons.
This Tennessee-based band was one of the more surprising acts at Luck Reunion. I had no expectations when their set began, and I wanted to join the couple dancing throughout the crowd when it ended.
photo: Nathan Poppe
I’m late to the RWH party but I thought his set was hilarious and fun. The Soper native, 69, spent most of his formative years in Texas but Oklahoma should be proud to claim him, too. Check out the song “Snake Farm” and try not to sing along.
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