Thomas Michael Riley Music Festival: Luckenbach Texas

Thomas Michael Riley’s 6th Annual Music Festival at

Luckenbach, Texas on  April 12-14, 2013

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Photo by Julie Grote

If there is a single spot on this earth that is more peaceful, relaxing, and soul satisfying than Luckenbach, I haven’t found it yet.  Something about that old piece of land with its post office and general store and dancehall under the oak trees in Gillespie County is unmistakably and interminably inviting.  Perhaps it’s the good karma fostered by the region’s German settlers, who forged a treaty with the Comanche and kept it.  Fredericksburg and its surrounding areas, which include Luckenbach, is the one place on the Texas frontier where Indian atrocities did not occur.  Somehow the immigrants from the Old World found a way to earn the respect and trust of the otherwise ferocious inhabits of the New World.  It’s an amazing story when you dig into it, particularly given the well-earned reputation of the Comanche people.   But no matter the cause for the vibe in Luckenbach, the bottom line is that in a portion of Texas that’s long been extraordinary for all the right reasons, the tradition continues in the little old Hill Country town.  The slogan goes that “Everybody’s somebody in Luckenbach.”  True as that is, I think perhaps the more fundamental reality is that in Luckenbach everybody is a nobody, just another equal strolling the grounds under the live oaks and avoiding the chickens running around.  Nobody gets along as well as a bunch of nobodies, right?  The somebodies tend to have egos and be conscious of social status and all the other irritating constraints of the workaday world.  In Luckenbach all of that gets checked at the door.  Folks just walk right on in and relax, start smiling at everyone, strike up conversations with total strangers as if they were old friends.  Of course within a matter of minutes, they are.   Sometimes they turn into good memories once you depart, others they become lifelong and welcome additions to your life.   It’s just that kind of place.

Because of all of the above, coupled with the tireless professionalism of Luckenbach’s music and security staff, the town is also a perfect spot to host a music festival.

Thomas Michael Riley. Photo by Julie Grote

Thomas Michael Riley’s been putting one of those on yearly for a half decade now, and Outlaw Magazine was privileged to attend the sixth one and take it all in.   Tell you right now there exist no words to describe the event in all of its peacefully exuberant glory.  But we’ll try anyhow, just in case you weren’t able to make it.  You might should plan better next year, though.  We don’t want you missing out. There are several aspects to any music festival.  Some of them are technical and logistical in nature and generally pertain specifically to the artists on the roster and the venue ownership and staff.  Some are about the roster itself and the quality of music being provided.  Others are more narrowly focused on attendees:  Are they a bunch of rowdy drunks?  Do they like to chuck beer bottles and start fights and pair off for a quick screw in the port-a-johns?   Or would they rather listen and visit, let the road dust and life’s cares be washed off in waves of musical beauty?   Most times when you’re headed to a fest, you don’t know what kind of crowd you’ll be dealing with.  In Luckenbach, you always do.  It makes the drive there easier.  And Thomas Michael Riley isn’t a guy who puts his name on something lightly.  He brings bands worth hearing, the folks who are doing it right.  Also somehow manages to include a range of musical styles and deliveries that guarantees one cannot get bored.   It’s a tricky proposition finding that balance, and Riley delivers.

There’s not space enough to talk about every performance.  But some stood out.  Let’s start there.

The Dirty Pesos. Photo by Kimberly Pilot

Friday evening, batting leadoff for the weekend’s festivities, playing the outdoor stage behind the post office.  It’s a good slot, but it comes with some challenges.  5:30pm downbeat, for starters.   Whoever opens here knows by default that the full crowd isn’t even on the grounds yet.  But there’s a crowd nonetheless, and this year that lucky audience got an up close and amplified introduction to a north Texas phenomenon – The Dirty Pesos. Not a real widely known band yet, but if the set they unleashed Friday evening is any indication, that’ll change and soon.   There aren’t many guitar players like Mark Lafon.  And I don’t know that there are any frontmen anywhere who can unleash a vocal as powerful yet nuanced and controlled as Tom McElvain’s.   The whole band is tight; they’re all seasoned pros but they’ve only been together in this configuration for about a year.   It’s immediately obvious that they practice hard and put in the time; the professionalism and stage presence on display were far beyond the norm for even some established bands with several years together under their belts.   Naturally in their Luckenbach debut they trotted out their own Luckenbach song.  But where most besides Waylon’s old gem are trite, the one the Pesos played actually gets at the heart of the town in a direct and spot on manner:

Hats off to Luckenbach

Taught us how to live a life

Better than most

Maybe the best summation of Luckenbach I’ve come across right there.  Every word of it true.   But the Dirty Pesos also know full well how to rock.  By the time they closed their set with “Robbing Banks,” the crowd was hanging on every word and every riff.  Scott Lytle’s drum kit and Brad King’s bass set a perfect bottom for the intense and powerful song, and Kyle Wade Smith’s keys danced against Lafon’s guitar in a way that shouldn’t work but somehow does.   Lafon went full-on gonzo guitar god near the end, bending almost to his knees while playing behind his head for a sustained period of time.   Killer riffs, unbelievable power and jaw dropping skill.   When the song wrapped the crowd delivered a standing ovation almost as sustained as that solo.  Thomas Michael Riley hopped up on the stage and asked for an encore.   That’s how a band with its head screwed on straight debuts in an iconic venue.

Any festival that kicks off like that holds more promise than springtime itsownself.  And this one delivered.  After the Pesos wrapped, the crowd moved into the old dancehall for Friday evening’s featured performers.  Host Thomas Michael Riley and his band kicked it off, turning in yet another solid, entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable set.  Riley made a point of calling out the vibe in Luckenbach, and reminding everyone that life’s never so good as when we all take the time to look out for each other.  In a room full of salt of the earth folks whose boots and hats are more work tools than haute couture those words ring awfully true.  ‘Course they always do anyway coming from TMR.  He’s just the kind of fella.

When Riley and his band left the stage, the crowd sort of dissipated a bit in anticipation of a set change and all the usual shuffling required for a new band to take the wheel.

Some folks stepped outside to smoke, others to grab a pulled pork sandwich or amble over behind the general store for a fresh cold beer.  We were parked on a weathered picnic table behind the dancehall, right next to the open windows, where we could see and hear and participate without inhibiting my cigar jones.  So from our vantage point we could see the whole town.

Hal Ketchum. Photo by Julie Grote

Kids running around.  Dogs on leashes.  Clusters of happy folks visiting, meeting, joking, laughing.  It got noisy, but the happy kind of noise.  And then, out of absolutely nowhere and with zero fanfare or introduction, boom.  Hal Ketchum took the dancehall stage and just started singing a cappella.  No instrumentation.  No warning.  Man unleashed a crystalline and yearning tenor version of “The Preacher and Me.”  And within seconds, the town stopped.  We saw it all from our picnic table, and it was powerful.  Kids quit running.  Jokes stopped in mid-sentence.  Laughter died and heads snapped around and stared toward the dancehall.  The song itself carries plenty of mystical power.  Hearing it this way, in this setting, tapped into something vital that the original album version with full accompaniment never came close to.  Ketchum up there on that old wooden stage under the bare light bulbs, silver hair shining like the mane of an Old Testament prophet, and that voice.  My Lord, that voice.  The only movement from that moment until the song ended was that of people shuffling reverently back into the hall.  Nothing else stirred, and from an open air dance hall in a Hill Country hollow a voice like an angel’s brought magic to the entire town.  I’ve witnessed some powerful musical moments in my life.  None like this one, though.  Hal’s set left me with a newfound respect and appreciation for his work.  Always thought he was a material talent, but by and large his catalog never connected with me on any visceral level.  That changed at Thomas Michael Riley’s festival.

How anyone follows a set like the one Ketchum unleashed is a mystery, and not many folks on the circuit stand a chance.  But then Max Stalling isn’t many folks.  Nobody else like Max in Texas these days.   His ability to make a smooth delivery evocative and powerful is unsurpassed in my experience.  And this set was no exception.  Stallings’ catalog at this point in his career is deep and varied, and he mined it with expert ease.  Mind boggling beauty interspersed with wisdom and wit are the hallmarks of Max’s career.  The peaceful easy mood he set belied the utter lack of space on the dance floor.  And even when the crowded dancers inevitably bumped into each other, no one had anything but a smile.  Not a harsh word or a mean thought in sight.   Just a perfect conclusion to another perfect Friday night in Texas.

Saturday morning came early on the heels of Friday evening’s festivities.  Like many festival attendees, we took our time waking up and finding breakfast and getting generally mobile and semi-intelligent.  By the time we’d made it back to Luckenbach, the day’s opening act The Rankin Twins had already finished up and Blacktop Gypsy was owning the outdoor stage.   Crowd grew considerably during their set, with a goodly amount of folks augmenting their listening pleasure by getting thoroughly entertained at the chicken shit bingo cage.  Nothing like watching grown men wave at a penned up rooster urging it to relieve itself on the square they bought.  But even so, none of that noise interfered with listeners’ ability to hear the band do its thing.  They’re a powerful and tight group, these Blacktop Gypsies.  Harmonies for miles and a talent for working a crowd.  Particularly one largely as attentive as the audience they enjoyed Saturday afternoon.

After the set wrapped, there was a bit of an extended break ahead of the 6pm Larry Joe Taylor slot.

Photo by Dave Pilot

Nobody seemed to mind.  Other artists who weren’t playing the festival made appearances and mingled, Chris Wall among them.  Small knots of friendly people coagulated all over the grounds, then drifted apart and reformed as conversations and introductions and reunions and acquaintances were formed and renewed in a beautifully kinetic fashion.  The beer flowed freely, but no one got drunk.  Or if they did, not obnoxiously so.  This many people swilling brews in a small space generally means some opportunities to get in a bit of aggressive people watching.  Not this day, though.  Nobody fighting, no arguments rising above the level of friendly banter.  The sort of easy happiness and genuine human kindness on display seemed more like what one would expect from a small country church.  But it was on Hondo’s back porch instead, the way it always seems to be in that town.

When Larry Joe took the stage, the crowd was ready.  The break had offered plenty of chances to brew up and pee out and still have time for some grub.  So LJT and his band took full advantage of an amped and ready crowd.  Solid set top to bottom, full of old favorites.  At one point Larry Joe pulled Chris Wall onstage for a full throttle rendition of “Trashy Women,” and the town went about as wild as it got all weekend.  Wall’s long been a Luckenbach favorite, and the appreciation showed its deep roots throughout the song.  Classy move on Taylor’s part to share the limelight a bit, and another example of just what that undefinable something is that so sets Texas music and its adherents apart from the mainstream crowds.

The Tejas Brothers then proceeded to unleash a wall of sound Doug Sahm would thoroughly appreciate en route to getting the dancehall filled and rocking and the dance floor full (again).   Terrific set, high energy, familiar yet fresh arrangements blending the best of country and Tejano and rock ‘n roll.  Two- steps and cumbias, heartbreak and joy, all packaged in a thoroughly entertaining and expertly presented set.

Photo by Julie Grote

Which left Thomas Michael Riley with the tough act to follow this time.  As the event host he plays both days, and it became clear in a hurry that while his Friday night set was solid, he’d held a little something back for Saturday night.  And whatever he still had in reserve after a couple of long days hosting and coordinating and managing a complex affair, he turned it loose and turned it up and let it roll.   Energetic set, lots of energy and chock full of passion.  Threw in a rousing and thoroughly spiritual take on Rusty Wier’s “I Stood Up.”   And generally raised the roof.   It’s not all that difficult to tell, especially if you’ve been to a few rodeos, which performers are just performing and which ones are riding their souls hellbent for leather across a musical prairie because they know they’ll die if they fall off.   Riley’s one of the latter.  There’s a genuine and, for lack of a better word, virtuous sense to everything he does on a stage.  It’s heartfelt, it’s real, it’s timeless.   And when that’s the case, nobody walks away unsatisfied.  Saturday night in Texas, nobody did.

Deryl Dodd closed out the night, but unfortunately we had to miss his set so I can’t tell you about it.  Secondhand word is that it was full of his usual highly entertaining and thoroughly energetic delivery, and an absolute treat.  We also missed the Sunday afternoon finale with Davin James and Riley and if it was like previous years an amalgamation of whichever artists are still present and standing.  Days like that are often the very best time to be in Luckenbach, but to our eternal chagrin pressing Monday matters in Fort Worth required us to leave the Hill Country behind.   Although, to be honest, it is one thing to leave central Texas in a physical sense.  Once you’ve been there, however, a piece of your heart and the best of your soul sticks around forever no matter where your body winds up.   It’s a wonderful place, a harbor in a world gone mad.   And a big part of its charm and allure resides squarely with the spirit and the warmth and the love and the talent and the warmhearted friendliness that Thomas Michael Riley and his guests each year bring to Luckenbach, the happiest place on earth.  And no, I don’t care what Disney says.  I’ve been to both.  I know the truth.  And at Outlaw, we’re already making plans for next year’s TMR festival.  You should, too.  Come sit a spell and visit, let’s get acquainted.

Dave Pilot & wife Kimberly Pilot

~ Dave Pilot

Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.

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