What beats arriving in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Music Festival? Getting out of Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest Music Festival.
A few days can feel like a month at the round-the-clock gathering. Time compresses and experiences pile up, and the long march must go on, as you steadfastly do battle with swarms of festivalgoers in search of the ultimate, fabulously entertaining, and enlightening South By experience to brag about to social media friends. The line to get your wristband goes on forever, and the party never ends.
The best strategy for dealing with such stress - What? Miley Cyrus showed up at the Mike Will Made It show at the Fader Fort, and I missed it?! - is to convince yourself that it really will be no great loss if you skip the Spotify house or pass on the Pitchfork party and find a way to get out of town for an afternoon for your own sanity's sake.
That's where Willie Nelson's Heartbreaker Banquet comes in. For the fourth consecutive year, Nelson has hosted a one-day festival on the grounds of "Luck, Texas," a faux-western town on Nelson's ranch about 30 miles west of Austin. Luck, Texas, was built as a set for his 1986 Red Headed Stranger movie.
This year, the benefit concert - proceeds went to the Sims Foundation, which provides mental-health care for Austin musicians, and the sustainable food and farming support organization Wholesome Wave - featured a formidable lineup on two small stages.
Along with Nelson himself and several members of his family, the lineup included Nashville outlaw country singer Nikki Lane; gifted indie songwriting Angel Olsen; New Orleans folk throwbacks Hurray for the Riff Raff; Philadelphia's own indie troubadour, Hamilton Leithauser; and Leon Bridges, the Fort Worth retro-soul man signed to Columbia Records, who is one of the breakout stars of the festival. His straight-out-of-1963 aesthetic has an appealing innocence.
There were bacon, Brie, and apple kolaches (a Czech pastry) and Texas-sized kielbasas for sale, and a Stetson hat shop set up in the town "jail." There was also free beer and a certain aroma in the air among Nelson fans, many of them wearing "I'll quit when Willie quits" shirts. Everybody knew they were in the right place.
Lane sure did. In the midst of a red-hot set that displayed Southern rock swagger and honky-tonk home truths, she said: "I am so happy and honored to be on this stage and not stuck in town with everybody else. I was talking to somebody yesterday and they said, 'But it's 45 minutes away!' And I said, 'OK, you stay here. I'm going out where the bathroom lines are shorter."
For me, the principal musical lure was Bridges, the 25-year-old Fort Worth singer and guitarist. With a creamy soul voice and an every-detail-in-place aesthetic, he looks as if he just stepped off the set of a Hollywood film about Kennedy-era Southern soul. Within the well-trod retro-soul movement, Bridges has his own thing going. One song, "Lisa Sawyer," is about his mother's baptism in a river. Another is a risqué number about his grandparents' courtship. He has a quiet star power, and his band looks like a cross between an old-fashioned soul revue and a Western swing outfit.
And, yes, they do swing. The musicianship was impeccable, as were the vocals by Bridges and his backup singers. It's easy to see why Columbia has Bridges marked for (at least) Alabama Shakes-sized stardom. On first hearing, I wasn't immediately slain by the originality of the songs, which seemed genre-bound. That opinion changed, however, on hearing "Take Me to Your River," a stunning, acoustic gospel-soul closer that left everybody in Luck hungry for more.
Another highlight was Lindi Ortega. This Nashville honky-tonkstress and rockabilly cat showed off strong soul music moves, as well. She introduced one song by saying, "I wear black because I like to write songs about dark things. This one's about burying a body in the backyard."
Other high points included Israel Nash, who resides in nearby Dripping Springs, Texas, and conjured up a Neil Young and Crazy Horse-like storm; the Deslondes, a New Orleans upright-bass-plucking country-soul band; and Olsen, who played haunting solo electric guitar and brought her intimate, high-drama character sketches to bear with a whisper and nary a scream.
Don't hate me: I didn't stay for Willie. I had to get back to town!