Sing one for Sister Bobbie: Willie Nelson's Luck Reunion returns in grand style
So many storylines out of the Luck Reunion on March 17. What was the biggest?
Was it a remarkable run of women performers for the second Reunion in a row? When this annual event at Willie Nelson's ranch west of Austin was last held in 2019 (the pandemic halted 2020 and 2021 versions), we marveled at the impressive slate of female artists who appeared.
Was it the mid-afternoon set by the Lost Gonzo Band with guest Michael Martin Murphey, whose classics from Austin's 1970s cosmic-cowboy era infused the Reunion with the spirit of Willie's Armadillo World Headquarters heyday?
Was it the lines-out-the-door crowds at the Saloon stage for beloved San Francisco rocker Chuck Prophet, who'd announced earlier this week that he'd been diagnosed with lymphoma but still made the trip to Luck?
Was it the surprise appearance by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who's playing his own show at this same venue Friday night but arrived early to get in on the good times?
It could have been any of those things in any other year. But a week after Willie lost his older sister and longtime piano player Bobbie Nelson, everyone's thoughts were first and foremost of her.
We were constantly reminded, as Bobbie's grand piano took up a good chunk of the event's main stage all day, wrapped in a black tarp. The question of who might play piano with Willie was answered the night before, when he performed at a private event with the piano bench empty. There could be no better tribute.
As Willie performed — his sons Lukas and Micah by his side, along with band members Mickey Raphael, Kevin Smith and Billy English — a subtle projection lingered on the backdrop of stars behind them. It read: "In Loving Memory of Bobbie Nelson, 1931-2022."
Willie's performances that Wednesday and Thursday were just the start of a residency-type stretch of Luck shows in the next few weeks, which is fitting since Luck is, well, his residency. The Old West movie set that was built there for his 1980s film "Red Headed Stranger" increasingly is being used as a concert venue. Isbell and Austin phenom Shakey Graves will perform there Friday and Saturday, respectively, with Willie taking the stage on Sunday and returning for two more shows March 26 and April 2.
But let's get back to all those other highlights from a glorious afternoon in the Hill Country. First: the women. We arrived around noon, about an hour after gates opened, and right off the bat were impressed by a short acoustic duo set in the Saloon by Leslie Mendelson and Steve McEwan.
"It's all I want to hear, ringing in my ears," they sang in harmony on what appears to be a new song called "Rock and Roll on the Radio," but it sounded like an instant classic. We caught Mendelson as a guest vocalist last fall at Jackson Browne's "Austin City Limits" taping; now we'd like to see Mendelson have her own slot on the show. ("Austin City Limits" executive producer Terry Lickona was making the rounds at Luck on Thursday, so who knows.) Mendelson performs at 3 p.m. Friday at the Continental Club, part of the Atomic Music Group day party.
More great sets by women artists followed, like a boxer unleashing a flurry of lefts and rights. Hey, check out Danielle Ponder in the Revival Tent. We remembered being bowled away by Yola in 2019, a few months before she earned a Grammy best new artist nomination and got a full hour on "Austin City Limits"; Ponder's set suggested similar highs to come from this extraordinary public defender turned musician. Check out this clip from "Why Won't the Stars Align":
Then it was New Zealand's Tami Neilson, who brought the main stage crowd — and herself — nearly to tears with a beautiful ballad called "Beyond the Stars" that featured a duet vocal from none other than Willie himself. Neilson was glad it came at the end of her set: "How the hell am I supposed to do anything after that? I'm retiring tomorrow," she joked — or at least we hope, as we'd like to hear a lot more from Neilson.
Across the way a few minutes later, Lukas Nelson popped on the beer garden stage for a song with Lily Meola, whose backing crew otherwise was all women. The cavalcade of female stars just kept on coming: Kentucky singer-songwriter S.G. Goodman rocked out with her band on the mainstage; Adia Victoria wowed the lucky few who crammed into the tiny chapel; and Allison Russell showed why she's currently up for three Grammys with a spellbinding set in the Revival Tent. (Lickona was in the crowd and mentioned she'll be taping "Austin City Limits" soon.)
We headed back into town at dusk, but there was more to come from the women, including Grammy best new artist nominee Michelle Zauner's band Japanese Breakfast and mesmerizing Sub Pop records artist Weyes Blood. Next time you see a festival lineup that's lacking in female performers, show them the Luck 2022 schedule.
The Lost Gonzos may have bucked that trend with its lineup of six men onstage (plus two more when Murphey and his guitarist son Ryan joined), but their presence was welcome, as it provided context for how Willie became an Austin legend in the first place.
The Gonzos — original members Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston and Jon Inmon anchored Thursday's lineup — were backing Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker on classic rootsy material in Austin even before Willie arrived and kicked off the outlaw country craze. (Drummer Freddie Krc, pianist David Webb and guitarist Steve Lang rounded out the lineup.)
Walker died in 2020, but the Gonzos paid tribute to him with a lovely rendition of "Hill Country Rain," before Murphey joined for a medley of "Geronimo's Cadillac" and "Cosmic Cowboy" plus the obligatory but exquisite "Wildfire." Nunn took the reins for the finale, his signature-song "London Homesick Blues," with many in the crowd joining in for its "home with the armadillo" refrain. And they brought it all back to Bobbie, asking the crowd for a moment of silence in her memory near the end of the set.
Strolling the spacious grounds at Luck, one is prone to pick up on a few rumors here and there, often centered on unannounced performers. The grapevine trotted out stars such as Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and Tanya Tucker in guessing who might fill the 9 p.m. slot marked as "special guest" on the schedule, but Luck did quite well by booking Americana heavyweight Isbell and his 400 Unit band in that slot.
One Willie-related rumor we're hoping turns out to be true involved his annual Fourth of July Picnic potentially moving from Circuit of the Americas to the new Q2 Stadium, home of Austin's Major League Soccer team.
And finally, there was uncertainty about whether Prophet would appear. He'd canceled shows last weekend at the Continental Club, and on March 15, we learned why. "I've been diagnosed with lymphoma," he told fans via social media. "I'm getting great care with Kaiser Permanente and met with my oncologist today and the prognosis is good. In fact, the Doctor says I can go out and play some shows."
So here he was, onstage with his wife, keyboardist Stephanie Finch, and the rest of his Mission Express band, rocking out on the Saloon stage like there was no tomorrow. And he brought the perfect tune for the location. "Wish me Luck!" he sang out on his song of that title, with its gentlemanly follow-up line: "If it's not too much to ask."
It's not, Chuck. May the Luck be with you.