Old Settlers Music Festival, Dripping Springs, TX- 4/20
When I drove down Elder Hill Road, a rather treacherous means for reaching the Old Settler’s Music Festival site, a conspicuous analogy to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival arose. The road’s twists and turns over pristine streams and past a verdant landscape only lacked the overbearing mountains which supplies Telluride with a visually rapturous view. Likewise the lineup of Bruce Hornsby, Leftover Salmon, the John Cowan Band with Vassar Clements and Peter Rowan and Crucial Reggae had a remarkable similarity to Friday’s aggregation at the 2001 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
However, upon arriving, the differences became more apparent, not in the visual or sonic means, but in the atmosphere. While Telluride’s seclusion makes the festival somewhat parochial, the Old Settler’s Music Festival’s proximity to Austin attracts the anomalous festival fan. When I walked to the ticket window, a young man remarked, "God damn, I love Texas. None of the veggie shit in Colorado, but damn good Shiner beer and barbecue." The festival had the feeling of a party, with the river and beer garnering as much attention as the music.
All of which should be expected. Saturday represented the serendipitous combination of music, sun and a numerically significant date to make for a different styled audience. In the hill country, where else would one want to go to celebrate the culturally momentous occasion to the biblically discussed "green from the earth"? Mix such a crowd with aging participants whom expect traditional bluegrass, not reggae and jamgrass, and you have an outrgglomeration of people in a torrid outdoor setting. To this end, one festival volunteer contended, "Son, today has a lineup just like Telluride, but here you’re going to get better beer, prettier women, and be able to breathe." Only to have his comment became rebuked when another volunteer stated, "Buds abound all around man, it will be high on a hill top for sure, right at 4:20."
None of these comments and their pertinent ripostes trammeled the music as it undulated through the central Texas hill country. The Old Settler’s Music Festival represents the commencement of festival season, and acts such as Peter Rowan and John Cowan are offered a perfect warm-up for forthcoming events. Spread over two stages, the diminutive indoor Bluebonnet Stage and the large Telluride-esque Hill Country Stage, most acts spent time performing on both stages; maximizing the music for the audiophiles.
Peter Rowan epitomized the ethic of "a festival becomes a place to practice and play." His set at the Bluebonnet Stage, which began at for the crowd’s significance at 4:20 p.m., offered fans a rare glimpse of Rowan’s bluegrass roots. Bulwarked by Billy Bright on mandolin, Bryn Bright on bass and Sally Cashdollar on dobro, Rowan began the set with the bluegrass classic "Dust Bowl Children" followed by a ragged performance of "Walls of Time." He then proceeded to offer a rousing rendition of the Tex-Mex classic "Free Mexican Airforce," only to conclude with the bluegrass favorite "Panama Red." Given Rowan’s current reggae interests, to hear a straight bluegrass set in a small venue offered one of the highlights of the day.
On the Hill Country Stage, as the sun began to set, Rowan then began a reggae set with the Bob Marley piece "Natural Mystic." As his band began to conflate, guests such as Drew Emmitt and Vassar Clements augmented reggae versions of various Rowan compositions such as "Land of the Navajo," and "Midnight Moonlight" to the elation of the crowd. Clements in particular seemed effulgent, as he slowly comprehended the reggae beat and began to add Old and In the Way breakdown’s to Rowan’s island ruminations. For those at the Hill Country Stage whom missed Rowan’s earlier set, some fans were heard musing about a bluegrass set. However, with Rowan’s recent release of Reggaebilly, those attending High Sierra and Telluride should expect a full reggae set rather than an Old and in the Way sound. However, between the Bluebonnet Stage and the Hill Country Stage, Rowan offered audiences a plethora of great music from two wonderful, ethnic disciplines.
Beyond Rowan’s two sets, what distinguishes a festival of any variety from discrete gigs remains the propensity of guest performances. For example, the John Cowan Band had Drew Emmitt sit in for "Bend in the River" and "Freedom Ride," both from Emmitt’s recent solo release Freedom Ride. During Leftover Salmon’s set, John Cowan added vocals to the John Hartford composition "Steam Powered Aeroplane." Given the 2001 Old Settler’s Music Festival represented Hartford’s last public performance, Leftover Salmon and Cowan’s decision to play the song had a special meaning to many in the audience. The evening reached a festival zenith when Cowan, Rowan and Luke Bella aided Leftover Salmon in a stunning performance of the rare Rowan composition "Rainmaker," as ominous clouds began to approach the Old Settler’s Music Festival premises.
Festivals are noteworthy for the unexpected performers one of which, Monte Montgomery, left the audience immeasurably stunned. A mixture of Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke, Montgomery deftly combined strong lyrics and jams with lissome guitar filigrees. The closing "Superstition," revealed an artist worthy of attention from fans of Keller Williams whom desire a more earnest approach to the craft. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a late night set with Larry made many listeners wonder how the band has garnered a myriad of panegyrics from the press. Mixing funk and blues, the band sounded to these ears like a repugnant version of Blues Traveler.
Certain aspects of the festival continued to flummox me days afterward. At one moment, before Leftover Salmon’s set, in complete darkness, the festival organizers asked all fans dancing at the front of the stage to move, so those seated could see the band perform. Bizarre, how the three raucous closing sets of the evening which warranted standing attention, left most festival fans seated; an enormous difference to the Telluride ethos of "picking up the tarps and chairs at nightfall." Despite such inexplicable moments which bookended my experience, the festival offered a glimpse of the coming summer, which as I bounced back down Elder Hill Road to my domicile, made me feel clairvoyant indeed.