2023 Luck Reunion Features Legendary Performances, Logistical Issues

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Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion remains one of the most premier and exclusive events in the country and roots space every year, and a much healthier option to braving a day at SXSW in Austin, TX, which Luck acts as an alternative to. But even though the 2023 installment will be remembered for plenty of fond reasons—and most notably some excellent musical performances—logistical issues rose up to be a significant concern for attendees, and not just in ways that were inconveniencing, but in ways that impinged on your ability to take in all the great talent the event showcased.

The Luck Reunion isn’t exclusively a country and roots event. Indie rock titans Spoon were one of the big acts, and soulful acts such as Devon Gilfillian and The Heavy Heavy also performed. But one of the cool themes of the 2023 Luck Reunion was honoring a host of Texas music legends. This included Lubbock’s Terry Allen, who at 79 years of age took the stage with the all-star Panhandle Mystery Band that included Charlie Sexton. Legendary Flatlander Jimmie Dale Gilmore also performed with the West Texas Exiles, and Michael Martin Murphey played the Luck Reunion for the second year in a row.

Terry Allen

One of the early sets that many were raving about was a tribute to the Texas Tornados fronted by Shawn Sahm, who is the son of the late Texas legend Doug Sahm. It wasn’t just the songs of Doug Sahm that went on to define his career and Texas music, it was the energy and vibe he brought to them. Shawn Sahm understands this better than anyone, and translates the Doug Sahm vibe so perfectly in the role of filling his father’s big shoes.

Shawn Sahm

One of the sets that will define the 2023 Luck Reunion was the tribute to Leon Russell orchestrated by producers, songwriters, and piano players Beau Bedford and Robert Ellis. The tribute was already on fire when Margo Price showed up to sing a song, and later it exploded when Sierra Ferrell sang lead on “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which Leon Russell performed on with Joe Cocker. If no other moment during the 2023 Luck Reunion was etched as a permanent memory in the brains of attendees, this one most certainly was.

Speaking of Sierra Ferrell and Margo Price, both put on excellent sets on the main stage, with Sierra covering Willie’s “Seven Spanish Angels,” and Margo’s performance being exceptional for a number of reasons. Price was not originally on the lineup. She was added due to the event having to be moved from Thursday (3-16) to Friday (3-17) because of weather. Margo Price played with The Band of Heathens as her backing band on about 24 hours notice. They didn’t just pull it off, it was an incredible set on music, with Margo grinning from ear to ear with a bigger sound behind her than what she’s used to. It wasn’t like the Band of Heathens weren’t busy at the time either. They released their brand new album Simple Things on the same day.

Margo Price with The Band of Heathens

But even as exceptional as these sets were, perhaps the best overall performance of the entire day was turned in by The War and Treaty. On the heels of their new album Lover’s Game, they slayed on the Barn Stage right before Spoon came out, showcasing their soulful and Gospel-tinged version of country and Americana to a super appreciative crowd. They may not fit perfectly in the “country” space sonically, but as anyone who has seen them perform live will attest, country music should be more than happy to have The War and Treaty within the fold.

The War and Treaty

Another standout of the event was the Black Opry Revue, which featured performers Aaron Vance, Sug Daniels, Nikki Morgan, and Nicky Diamonds. These “in the round” performances without a band can sometimes be exposing to artists, and tedious for audiences. That was not the case here at all. All four performers could hold their own with just a voice and guitar (or ukulele for Sug), showcasing excellent songs, and excellent voices that sold you on this feature of the festival.

Saving Country Music has been touting Aaron Vance since 2016, and hopefully he is finally starting to find his breakout moment.

Aaron Vance

But as great as all the acts were that you could easily see on the open-air stages, the performers who played on the smaller stages in Willie’s Chapel, in the Saloon, and on the Barn Stage had such limited capacity, it was difficult to impossible to take them in. It’s always been an issue at Luck that the Chapel Stage only caters to a small group of folks who brave the line for two hours to see their favorite performer, but in a more intimate space that makes for more memorable moments for those who get a seat.

This year the Saloon Stage also became a situation where you had to plan two or three hours ahead to get a spot to see one artist. At one point, I counted 450 people in line to get into a space maybe 150 could fit in. The line snaked all the way down the little town of Luck Willie built as the backdrop for the Red Headed Stranger movie released in 1986.

Where on previous years the “Barn Stage” was open air and allowed people to congregate all around it, this year it was walled off in a white tent that immediately filled up. If you arrived five minutes late to the show, you were forced to stand outside, and listen as best you could. Even just taking down the canvas walls of the tent would have made for a wider experience for all.

People crowded around the outside of the Barn Stage, hoping to get in.

This was just the beginning of the logistical concerns. Too few food vendors meant waiting 45 minutes to an hour for food. Then by 6:00 p.m., the food vendors starting running out, creating a run on the other vendors who had anything left. I stood in line for 45 minutes for one food vendor before they ran out, jumped into another line, then they ran out as well. Eating dinner ultimately became a two-hour excursion.

Everything was a line at the Luck Reunion in 2023. It was a 30 minute wait for drinks, a 50 minute wait for merch, an hour-plus for food, two to three hours for a spot in the Chapel or Saloon. All this added up to more time standing as opposed to taking in the shows, and this doesn’t speak to trying to get to Luck and park.

I arrived at the satellite parking lot well before the start of the event, and a long line was already cued in the 40-degree weather, with no sign of any actual shuttle bus in sight. When one did arrive, it was one of those short transit buses that fits 15-20 folks if you’re lucky.

1 1/2 hours later, I finally arrived at Luck, having walked the last quarter mile since the snarl at the front gate was as so bad, this was the fastest way. This meant I missed William Prince, Jaime Wyatt, and Bella White, along with anyone else who played before 1:10 pm, which also happened to be a big chunk of the acts I wanted to see, and needed to be seen as the up-and-comers.

Other acts like Rattlesnake Milk, Katie Pruitt, Tami Neilson, and Drayton Farley that were priorities to see just couldn’t be managed since they were playing in The Chapel and The Saloon. You would miss out on other important acts if you took the time to stand in line to see them.

Willie Nelson came out to cap off the evening, and despite yet another year of age, turning 90 in April, and rather frigid temperatures in the 40s, he put on as good of a Luck headliner set as he has in years. He was joined by son Micah, as well as Ray Benson on stage. William Prince and others later joined Willie on stage for one of those career moments only the Luck Reunion can facilitate.

Willie played with son Micah, and Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel

Producing live events is never easy, and having to move from Thursday to Friday must have made it even harder for Luck this year. But over a decade into doing this event, unforced errors like overselling tickets like happened again this year, not having enough food vendors, not having shuttle busses, and further limiting the capacity of stages as opposed to expanding them all could have been avoided or planned for preemptively.

The Luck Reunion loves to pride itself in being inclusive and forward thinking, including this year featuring discussions on food sovereignty, the role of artists in advancing social justice, as well as environmental stewardship and climate solutions. But while worrying about the problems other may be creating, they’re not taking care of the problems that are within their control. During multiple sets, the power went out for extended 10-minute intervals, eating once again into the opportunity for fans to take in music.

The simple fact is that the Luck site is just not set up well to host large events. The property must be accessed through an old limestone gate that only fits one vehicle at a time, and leads to a one-way road. Even with shuttles and satellite parking, with the way massive shuttle busses, artists tour busses, and other support and staff vehicles need to access the site, it’s unfeasible to continue with that current configuration. The front gate needs to be expanded, and a two-way road constructed into Luck. Then they either need to limit the event’s capacity, or expand the grounds and add additional food vendors so that after so many years of running out of food, it doesn’t happen yet again.

The Luck Reunion has become too important and prestigious for SXSW goers to allow these incessant problems to fester, and it ultimately looks bad on the Luck organization as their flagship event, since it discourages folks from coming to other events in Luck, TX. Any festival that had similar issues to the 2023 Luck Reunion would have been lambasted on social media. Since some people are used to the shit show that is SXSW, perhaps they think it’s acceptable. But with how difficult and expensive it is to get tickets and parking, it’s not acceptable. Luck is supposed to be the more sustainable, more organized example for other festivals to pattern themselves around.

The music and memories from the 2023 Luck Reunion will endure. But hopefully the problems don’t.

All photos Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos

Sierra Ferrell
Sierra Ferrell singing in the Leon Russell tribute
Robert Ellis playing as part of the Leon Russell tribute
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the West Texas Exiles
The Heavy Heavy
Shawn Sahm and Matt Hubbard
Michael Guerra playing with the Texas Tornados. He also performs with The Mavericks.
The Town of Luck
Nicky Diamonds
Sug Daniels
Nikki Morgan
Aaron Vance
Black Opry Revue
Charlie Sexton
Songwriter John Baumann also of The Panhandlers
Ed Jurdi of the Band of Heathens
Spoon, that insisted on no spotlights.
Willie Nelson
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