Luck Reunion 2020: Livestream of Willie Nelson's Annual Texas Festival - Rolling Stone
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How the Luck Reunion Pulled Off Its Most Emotional Year Yet – With No Crowd

Willie Nelson’s annual Texas festival was reinvented as a livestream, with Paul Simon, Neil Young, and more taking part

Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Courtesy of Luck Reunion

The eighth annual Luck Reunion was supposed to draw around 4,000 people to Willie Nelson’s Texas ranch this week, with a lineup that included Nelson, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff, and more. Those plans, of course, went out the window due to COVID-19.

Instead of canceling altogether, the small Luck Team — headed up by founders Matt Bizer and Ellee Fletcher — decided to get creative, reviving the festival as a livestream concert, with performers broadcasting from their homes for charity. The result was more impactful than any traditional festival could have been. With Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson hosting from Austin’s Arlyn Studios, artists checked in from around the world: Tami Neilson belted a fiery set from a record store in New Zealand; Paul Simon, Edie Brickell, and their daughter Lulu harmonized the Everly Brothers’ “Dream” with Woody Harrelson in Hawaii. The format was endearingly loose — the perfect reminder that we are all in this together.

Artists performed from their homes, with minimal production. Williams played a sparse, electrifying set from her home, under a painting of Jesus with an electric guitar. It was unclear if she knew she was being filmed between songs, but her banter with her band — likening the coronavirus to roaches (“There’s an old saying back home in Louisiana: You can live in a mansion or a shack, you’re still going to have roaches”) — felt like the beginnings of a song. Margo Price and husband Jeremy Ivey tried out some gorgeous new songs at their home piano, with a baby monitor close by. (They gave a window into their family dynamic; after Ivey made some dad jokes, Price rolled her eyes. “He hasn’t even had any weed,” she said.) Price also shouted out Fiona Prine, who was originally supposed to be at Luck with husband John, but is now at home in Nashville recovering from the virus. Tre Burt fingerpicked a powerful set of ballads despite a grainy camera connection. Nikki Lane apologized to viewers that she hadn’t turned in the music video she’d put together for the broadcast in time, and then filmed it playing from her computer with her iPhone. It didn’t matter; it was still great. 

How did they pull it off? “We set up a mini TV studio, pulled together by friends,” founder Bizer explains. “Essentially, I screened people that called in on their Skypes, etc., and then pushed them over to an engineer with multiple feeds, and he switched between them all. Sort of a tiny team effort.” Bizer had a call with Paul Simon the day before, who needed to pre-tape his performance due to a shaky internet connection. (“They were all so sweet,” Bizer says.) That was when Simon decided to invite his neighbor Harrelson over at the last minute. “He was like, ‘I’m gonna go next door and invite Woody,'” Bizer says.

“Catastrophes seem to favor us,” says Fletcher, recalling a vicious storm that threatened the festival a few years ago. “We thought the crazy storm year of Luck in 2016 ended up being the most memorable and special of them all, but weirdly the year of no Luck is pretty up there for us. It was just really special to see our team rallying around this superfast idea, our fans coming to the plate to donate to artists, and our creative community coming together to just try to create a bright spot in this weird-ass time.”

Some artists called in for surprise performances. Neil Young performed a gorgeous fireside version of 1974’s “Vampire Blues,” one of the few times he’s performed it acoustically. But the highlight was Willie, Lukas, and Micah Nelson. Sitting in the Texas living room where they grew up playing music together, they launched into Willie’s main live opener, “Whiskey River.” WiIlie’s voice was strong, and he looked thrilled to be at work again. (“Dad would never have [taken time off], and we would have never had this time if we had not been forced to,” Lukas told RS.)

“Stay safe and stay sober,” Willie told his viewers before cracking up. Next, his sons played their own originals: Micah played “Everything Is Bullshit”; and Lukas played his moving ballads, “Set Me Down on a Cloud” and “Just Outside of Austin.” (“That’s a good song,” his father told him.) Lukas wrapped with “Turn Off the News (and Build a Garden),” which includes the line: “I just want to love you while I can/All these other thoughts have me confused/I don’t need to try and understand/Maybe I’ll get up, turn off the news.”

“Watching the broadcast go so well last night really gave me hope that the musical world will be able to be a major healing force and remind us not to lose our humanity during this time,” says Lukas. “As soon as this is over and it’s safe, I’m going to run out and hug friends, kiss them, and be more grateful for the physical act of love than I ever have. I hope to see many pictures like the famous kiss at the end of World War II.”

The Luck Reunion is still available to stream on Twitch. Venmo donations went to the artists and their favorite charities; at press time, they raised more than $190,000.

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