Yesterday at Willie Nelson's Luck, Texas ranch, dozens of touring artists gathered for the second, semi-exclusive, Heartbreaker Banquet featuring Jim James (My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk), Michael Kiwanuka, Elle King, Spirit Family Reunion, Phosphorescent, Shovels and Rope and Austin's own, Shakey Graves. The all-star collection of musicians performed for an audience capped at approximately 800 fans. Music was on two stages, the Main Stage and the intimate Chapel Stage which seated only 50 people. The Heartbreaker Banquet was a welcome respite from the craziness of South by Southwest (SXSW) in a bucolic, picturesque setting.
Nelson's ranch about 30 minutes outside of Austin was a fitting location for the event. The spot has been used by filmmakers seeking an authentic western feel. The ambiance along with ideal spring weather put fans in the right mood to hear some of the world's best folk, country, bluegrass and rock artists. The event was produced by Robert Fondue, Electric Lady Studios and John Varvatos.
Headliner, Jim James delivered a 90-minute, full-electric set wearing a simple dark suit, white shirt and black tie with his trademark, wavy hair flying around him as he thrashed about the Main Stage. James played guitar, sang solo and even pulled out a saxophone with a full band behind him. His thrashing guitar-work was tempered by soulful ballads. The My Morning Jacket founder and prolific songwriter capped an amazing day of live music performances.
We were particularly impressed with New York City's Spirit Family Reunion inside the Chapel. The foot-stomping, Americana, roots band played banjo, fiddle, washboard and guitar while gathered around a single microphone with a stripped-down drum kit providing a beat behind them. The band describes their sound as "open-door-gospel". Indeed the act's spirituals seemed fitting inside the tiny chapel sitting at the front of the beautiful property Nelson owns.
Another stand-out performance was British solo artist, Michael Kiwanuka who has been generating "sxsw buzz" all week with his performances. Yesterday the soulful singer mesmerized the audience with his sweet vocals and delicate guitar work. His cover of a rare Jimi Hendrix ballad was captivating. Kiwanuka is the son of Ugandan parents who escaped the reign of Dictator, Idi Amin. He cites influences ranging from Otis Redding to Jack Johnson.
The duo, Shovels and Rope proved to be entertaining. The husband and wife team of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are multi-instrumentalists from South Carolina who have previously played on the Late Show with David Letterman. Hearst's enthusiasm and folky demeanor was infectious and the band soon had the audience clapping and hollering along.
A nice surprise was The Treasures from Canada who play traditional, roots rock and country music with a standard set-up along with slide guitar and some beautiful harmonies. The quintet from Toronto cite as wide range of influences from Willie Nelson (they were thrilled to be playing at his ranch) to Wilco. The band has a new album due out soon.
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