SXSW: Getting away from it all at Willie Nelson's Heartbreaker Banquet

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Leon Bridges leads his band at Will Nelson's Heartbreaker Banquet in Luck, Texas on Thursday March 19.

What beats arriving in Austin, Texas for the SXSW Music Festival? Getting out of Austin, Texas during the SXSW Music Festival.

A few days can feel like a month in the trenches 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 festival goers in search of the ultimate fabulously entertaining and enlightening SX 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 inducing conditions - 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 Heartbreak Banquet comes in. For the fourth consecutive year, Nelson has hosted a one day festival on the grounds of the Luck, Texas faux Western townabout 30 miles west of Austin that was built as a set for his 1976 Red Headed Stranger movie.

In Luck, Texas.

This year, the benefit concert - moneys went to the Sims Foundation, which provides mental health care for Austin Musicians, and the sustainable food and farming support organization Wholesome Wave - and featured a formidable line-up on two small scale stages. 

Along with Nelson himlself 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 break out stars of the festival, and whose straight outta 1963 stylized aesthetic has an appealing innocence. 

With bacon, brie and apple kolaches (a Czech pastry) and Texas sized kielbasas for sale and with a Stetson hat shop set up in the town make "Jail" - plus free beer and certain aroma in the air among Nelson fans wearing "I'll quit when Willie quits" shirts, everybody knew they were in the right place.


Nikki Lane with Shelly Colvin.

Including Nikki Lane, who in the midst of a red-hot set that displayed Southern rock swagger along with honky tonk home truths, 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 'Okay, 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 who looks like he just stepped off a Hollywood film set about Kennedy administration era Southern soul. Within the welltrod retro soul movement, Bridges has his own thing going, with one song "Lisa Sawyer," written about his mother's baptism in a river. and another risque number about his grandparents courtship. He has a quiet star power, and his band that looks like a cross between an old fahion sou revue and a Western Swing outfit.

And yes, they do swing. The musicianship was impeccable, as were the vocals by Bridges and his back up singers. It's easy to see why Columbia has Bridges marked for (at least) Alabama Shakes-sized stardom. But while the entirety of Bridges presentation is delightful, on first hearing I wasn't immediately slain by the originality of the songs, which seemed genre bound. However, that opinion was altered upon hearing "Take Me To Your River." the acoustic gospel-soul stunner of a closer which left everybody in Luck hungry for more.


Lindi Ortega.

Other highlights included Lindi Ortega, the Nashville honky tonkstress and rockabilly cat who showed off strong soul music moves as well and introduced one song by saying "I wear black because I like to wriote songs about dark things: This one's about burying a body in the back yard."

The Deslondes.

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!

Previously: Around the world in Austin, Texas  Follow In The Mix on Twitter here