The Heartbreaker Banquet: An Oasis for SXSW
In the middle of SXSW -- a notoriously crammed, though thoroughly enjoyable, musical experience for publicists, journalists and fans alike -- the Heartbreaker Banquet stands out as an oasis of sorts. A 45-minute drive from the heart of Austin, the all-day festival has been occupying Willie Nelson’s private ranch, Luck, Texas, for the last four years, and the 2015 edition was the biggest and best yet.
With buses shuttling fans from Austin to the ranch, there was a very special vibe in the environment yesterday (March 19). Everyone felt the need to prove their loyalty to Nelson to complete strangers while heralding all the shows they’ve seen thus far at SXSW -- but regardless of who you were, the thing that connected every single person was simple: Willie Nelson is a god, and to go to his ranch for a full day of music from a wide cast of characters -- culminating in a performance by the icon himself -- is a once-in-a-lifetime (or at least, once-in-a-year) experience that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
When your feet touch the sacred ground of Luck, Texas, you’re immediately transported to the Wild Wild West. Horses surround the entrance; as soon as you walk in, you’re journeying from saloons to chapels, all to seek out music that is worthy of Nelson’s ranch.
This "worthiness" was a common theme with Banquet-goers; it wasn’t rare to hear people talk about the acts that were playing, noting to their friends, "If they’re good enough for Willie, they’re good enough for me." There are few phrases that sum up the Banquet better than that; placing their trust firmly in the Gospel of Nelson, there was a sense of community and fellowship for the 3,000 in attendance.
The lineup was eclectic, from the swamp-pop-folk-rock-and-roll of the Deslondes to the psychedelic garage rock of Clear Plastic Masks. Standout performances came courtesy of the likes of gospel-focused Leon Bridges and grateful-to-be-away-from-6th-Street Nikki Lane. What set the stage for the entire day, though, came courtesy of a very intimate song swap between five outstanding songwriters: Jonny Burke, Langhorne Slim, Luke Bell, Daniel Romano and Hugh Masterson.
Led by Burke’s boyish charm -- who, early on in the performance, humbly regaled fans with his respect for his parents -- the swap found the gentleman in a unique setting, sitting by while their colleagues each played their own songs, patiently waiting their turn to entertain the packed Revival Tent.
The Tent was bookended with another stellar showing from the one and only Butch Walker. His deeply personal and emotional songs were only matched by his raw energy -- all captured with just Walker and a guitar (and, at times, a bass drum). Nikki Lane joined him onstage for an unforgettable rendition of "The Battle vs. The War," but the moment that set the night on fire was Walker's poignant recollection of his late father. By the time Walker wrapped up the conversation -- detailing his dad's commitment to his music and his complete and utter fandom for Nelson -- there wasn't a dry eye in the house for "Father's Day."
From Matt Sucich and Horse Thief to Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real and Hurray for the Riff Raff, Heartbreaker Banquet covered the spectrum of America’s emerging and established talent, but the night wasn't complete until the legend himself took the Medicine Show Stage to wrap up the night. Playing for a solid 90 minutes, the soon-to-be 82-year-old outlaw could do no wrong as he and his family band pummeled through a greatest hits setlist.
The buzz was that Neil Young or Snoop Dogg might join Nelson onstage, but nothing like that ever happened, and in all honesty, it didn't need to happen. With the help of Electric Lady Studios and Robot Fondue, Nelson and company created an extraordinary event that only got better as the day wore on. With a sigh of relief being away from the hustle and bustle of 6th Street for a moment, the oasis of Heartbreaker Banquet has now faded away, but we get the feeling it will emerge even brighter for its fifth year in 2016.