"Welcome to the Grand Ole Quarantine."
Micah Nelson had the line of the night as he sat with his brother, Lukas, and his father, Willie, on a bench, presumably somewhere in Luck, Texas, as Thursday evening’s "Til Further Notice" livestream event came to a close. For almost six hours, artists who were slated to play this year’s Luck Reunion at Willie’s ranch in Spicewood, along with quite a few special guests, had entertained tens of thousands of music fans who tuned into the livestream event from all around the world, chipping in with donations that totaled more than $170,000 by the end of the night.
Primary beneficiaries of the fundraiser are the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, the SIMS Foundation and Farm Aid — and also, importantly, many of the musicians themselves, who suddenly find themselves without the vital income stream of touring. That’s not an issue for some of Thursday’s big-name guests (Neil Young, Paul Simon, Jewel), but it may well help talented upstarts who took part such as Katie Pruitt, Sunny War and Thomas Csorba.
The event, which began at 6 p.m. and ended at 11:45 p.m., was all over the map. Some artists played live from their living rooms; others aired videos they’d taped shortly beforehand. Sponsoring businesses including boot companies, ring makers and restaurants gave short pitches for their products. Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, whose own annual birthday bash benefit for HAAM this week was canceled, gamely stepped in as host from Austin’s Arlyn Studios, closing the festivities by quoting the late great local radio legend Joe Gracey: "Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can."
Here’s a random list of observations from all that we caught as we tuned in from home:
Best Musical Moment: Definitely the grand finale with Willie, Lukas and Micah playing together on acoustic guitars. Willie kicked it off, singing his traditional show-opener "Whiskey River." Micah chimed in with his band Particle Kid’s "Wheels," and Lukas brought it home with three choice cuts from his band Promise of the Real: "Set Me Down on a Cloud," "Turn Off the News" and the perfectly situated "Just Outside of Austin," which served as a salute of sorts to the site where the Luck Reunion usually gathers a thousand or so attendees every year. (The beauty of the livestream event was that exponentially more listeners could tune in.)
Most Exotic Location: Paul Simon and Edie Brickell offered up taped segments (probably recorded earlier that day) from Hawaii. Simon sang his classic "American Tune" in front of an ocean-blue mural; Brickell made up a song on the spot about quarantine, strumming along in a bedroom; and then Woody Harrelson — who lives near Willie’s second home in Hawaii — joined in on the Everly Brothers classic "All I Have to Do Is Dream" along with Simon and Brickell’s daughter Lulu, as palm trees swayed in the background.
Best Backdrop: Part of what was enlightening about the event was getting a sneak peek into artists’ homes or studios as they played. Margo Price and Jeremy Ivey showed off a bobcat skull one of their kids had found in the woods that they’d placed atop their piano. Nathaniel Rateliff was flanked by an impressive rack of vintage amps. But the best was Kurt Vile, who performed on acoustic guitar with one of his children alongside him — in a room that proudly displayed a Deep Purple LP, a rack of cassettes and a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Weirdest Segment: Easily Nikki Lane, who spent her 15 minutes near the start of the program pointing her phone at a computer monitor that was showing a clip they’d made but not been able to upload in time for a proper screening. What started as a pretty cool music video with all of her band members performing in different locations (bedroom, porch, bathroom — social distancing!) evolved into Lane making some sort of toilet paper advent calendar. Lane might have been in Nashville, or perhaps she was out on the grounds of Sam’s Town Point, where she’s lived in a rental house for much of the past year or so. Wherever she was, she set a bar for outsider performance art that no one approached.
Discoveries: No doubt the presence of Nelson, Simon, Rateliff, Lucinda Williams and other big names helped entice people to tune in and donate. But it was clear from the live chat that ran alongside the video on Facebook Live (where thousands tuned in, along with tens of thousands on a Twitch.tv feed) that many listeners appreciated having been turned on to lesser-known acts on the bill. Nashville-via-Britain duo Ida Mae, this year’s winner of the Luck Reunion’s annual "Artist on the Rise" contest, impressed with dramatic country-folk tunes. Tami Nielsen, delivering her set from a record store in New Zealand, got props for both her rockabilly-tinged music and her beehive hairdo. Austin’s David Ramirez clearly gained new fans, playing songs from a new album that emphasized his show-stopping voice.
Guest Stars: The Luck Reunion promised a few acts that weren’t on the hastily arranged livestream schedule, and they delivered. Australia’s Courtney Barnett,sat in on the short set by vocal duo Lucius. Shovels & Rope, the acclaimed South Carolina Americana duo, popped up. So did Neil Young, playing "Vampire Blues" aside a campfire. And, with the most perfectly chosen cover song of the night, Orville Peck, the masked marauder who’s become a favorite in LGBTQ circles and beyond, sang a song that Willie had a minor hit with many years back: "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other."
Bookends: Unbilled, singer Trey Privott from Austin band Los Coast strolled onto the screen at Arlyn just as things were getting started (after an introductory Willie video) and delivered a spectacular version of Sam Cooke’s "A Change Is Gonna Come" in front of Benson and the skeleton crew on-hand at the studio (which appeared to consist of less than 10 people, from a room shot later). Some fans chiming in on the Facebook Live feed continued asking throughout the night about Privott — including fellow artist Tre Burt, a Sacramento musician on John Prine’s Oh Boy label who gave Privott special props for his singing. And then, as the night came to an end, Benson tossed the proceedings back one last time to Hawaii, where Lulu Simon sang beautifully on the standard "Are You Lonesome Tonight" while Harrelson and her father added surreal recitations mid-song.
Song That Summed It All Up: Willie rarely plays a show without doing "On the Road Again." But it has never sounded so poignant and on-point as it did on this occasion. He joined voices with sons Lukas and Micah as they all wistfully attested that "the life I love is making music with my friends." It’s plenty clear, as citizens of the world do their best to wait out this pandemic, that the Nelsons, and everyone who performed last night — and all of us everywhere, indeed — just can’t wait to get on the road again.