Old Settler’s Music Festival, Austin, TX – April 15-18
Old Settler’s, while part
of an ever-growing festival scene, is a singular experience. It thrives on
providing an attractive setting, top-notch performers, and a late-night
campground scene that is a music festival in and of itself, where anyone and
everyone can be a performer, with or without the proper credentials. Nestled
in the heart of Hill Country just outside of Austin, Old Settler's has found
a perfect home for itself after moving around for the nearly 20 years of
it's existence existence.
Thursday nights at Old Settler's are priceless. The campground pavilion is
tiny, the seats are portable, the sun is setting, and the beer is free after
dark. That's pretty hard to beat. Roll your cooler over or set up the
domino table. Sit and slap a knee or get up and wiggle. Bring dinner or skip
that entirely and simply focus on the beer line. It's no complaints, no
rules, and nothing but fun.
Split Lip Rayfield opened the
festival for many. There are a number of sloppy bluegrass bands hacking away
at the strings these days, but none attack it with the unbridled jubilance
the Split Lips do. Half the attitude thumps out of Jeff Eaton's garage bass.
He cut a couple of rocket shaped noise holes into the gas tank of a Ford
LTD, bolted on a neck and a kick stand, then strung the bastard up with a
single weed eater string. It's the Monster Garage bass. The band plays with
blistered energy. Half of their songs burst out of the gate in a blustery
tangle of sound, and the other half get there eventually. The energy is
irresistible. It doesn't hurt, of course, that they arrived with some of the
festival's best songs in tow. From the multi-part harmonies of "Movin' to
Virginia," a song about why not to forgive to the full tilt "Kiss of Death,"
documenting the demise of a string of ill-fated automobiles to the pleading,
"Little More Cocaine Please," these Kansas boys came to kick ass, and they
did so with authority and wicked grins.
The Red Stick Ramblers, quick
on their heels, are a rambunctious and eclectic bunch. Incorporating jazz,
bluegrass, and blues with unabashed conviction and stellar musicianship,
they delighted the campground crowd and kicked the opening night's
festivities into the next gear. With their saucy, gypsy-styled finesse, the
boys ran through a number of bluegrass tunes and French blues songs,
accentuating them with their two fiddle players and Django-inspired
guitarist. With a fair bit of French lyrics, explosive energy, and
hot-hot-hot guitar playing, the Ramblers were one of the more eccentric and
incomparable acts to grace the stages this weekend.
Austin's finest Americana band, stacked with should-be-legendary
songwriters, graced the stage around ten o'clock. The Gourds, while mostly known for their
inimitable rendering of Snoop Dog's "Gin and Juice", have become a
Hill-Country institution through sheer staying-power and their ability to
somehow never write a bad song. Their one and only set of the festival
brought swaths of fans out from the periphery: long-time fans, old-folks,
youngsters, and the new bohemian Austinites. The night had officially begun.
As Joe Craven of the Grisman Quintet so eloquently put it, the Gourds are
"chumming the waters of the American music vernacular." It couldn't have
been said any better. No matter what style they latch onto, they go with the
current, and sweep the audience downstream with them. From the classic "Web
before You Walk Into It", to some of their more recent work, they played an
impassioned set of energetic hillbilly songs, lamentable tales of love, and
timeless back-porch daydreams, all with their finely-honed sense of tattered
grace. I doubt if there's a better campground band anywhere.
Thursday's headliner was Leftover
Salmon; I don't like Leftover Salmon. There, I said it. But here's the
catch – the work they do with other artists is some of my favorite stuff
anywhere. It isn't an infusion of talent or even a matter of who leads. I
can't put my finger on it, but the examples make it clear. The LOS set
Thursday night was relatively energetic. That's all I can say for it.
Something was missing, and it seemed to be missing for the band as well.
Perhaps it's distance from their material. For instance, they sing songs
about Woody Guthrie rather than Woody Guthrie songs or even songs in his
style. But I'm no traditionalist, so I don't think that's it. It isn't a
lack of talent. Drew Emmitt and Noam Pikelny can keep up with any of the
pickers on the bill. Still, something's missing. Friday night, I couldn't
even keep my focus. The band did its thing, and my mind wandered. Casual
conversations sprang up around us as the band lost segments of the crowd,
and then things shifted. I stopped mid-sentence to tune in to a lively
"Rocky Road Blues." I picked up in the banjo solo, and the band was cookin'.
I didn't even notice the difference until the song ended and Vince Hermann
shouted , "Mr. Tim O'Brien." Of course. They had help.
But all that's getting ahead of things. There was a pile of music Friday
before that Leftover set. Several of the campers started the groggy day
with a frigid dunk in the river and boarded the shuttle to cross the road
and river to the primary venue. The Friday and Saturday shows take place
alongside the river by the Salt Lick, a near-mythical barbeque joint nestled
into the quiet south of Austin. The sun baked big stage, the Hill Country
Stage, is rimmed with vendors while the secondary stage, the Bluebonnet
Stage, lazes in the shade beside the river. Smaller sets, clinics, and
events transpire on a front porch stage and on a small, indoor stage.
Despite often oppressive sun, the grounds are idyllic, particularly the
river and its grassy banks.
Cooper’s Uncle, an Austin
institution of late, got the bluegrass out of the gates early by the river.
Crowded around a mic, these relatively young lads busted out a number of
songs, including a solid version of Bill Monroe's "Rawhide". But, Cooper's
Uncle invariably shoots itself in the foot by playing traditional material.
You are guaranteed to hear a sharper version of the standards over the
course of the weekend, and it either stymies their originality or disguises
their lack thereof. To their benefit, they know how to pick songs. From Bill
Monroe to Ralph Stanley, and a collection of well-crafted, less-traditional
originals, they prove to have a good taste in crafting a pleasing if not
ground-breaking set of music.
Colorado Spring's Open Road
took the big stage clad in suits and hats, wrapped themselves around a
single mic as well, and played some good old-timey tunes that made me wish
there was a back porch and rocking chair nearby. They were determined to
make an impression on the crowd, and they did. With incredible harmonies and
strict, orchestrated musicianship, they tackled a number of bluegrass tunes,
and proved to be among the better of the traditional acts on the bill, with
a sound very much in the vein of Ralph Stanley. With a traditional sound
that somehow manages to conjure up images of the Rocky Mountains instead of
the Blue Ridge, Open Road made a memorable and striking appearance on the
The South Austin Jug Band
strolled onto to the main stage shortly, proudly showcasing their own brand
of jam-grass, which is essentially an amalgam of Django-esque jazz numbers,
a little hot swing, and Texas-inspired ballads and drinking songs. Winners
of the talent contest at Telluride a couple years back, they've staked their
claim on the acoustic music scene. They delve into the realms of old and new
acoustic music with new ears and a kind of freshness that has been very well
received in Central Texas. With an insanely talented fiddle player who can't
be older than 21 and a mandolinist that plays with a kind of rapid-fire,
kinetic fury not seen anywhere else, they make music of shimmering energy.
Add to that a bass player with no qualms about slapping his bass like
worn-out drum, and two guitarists who've managed to carve out their own
sound, South Austin knows how to please. The "Old Settler's Breakdown," the
very tune that won them Telluride, proved a major highlight, inciting
massive cheers and yelps from the crowd. This instrumental gave all the
soloists ample room to stretch out, and is a great testament to not only
their technical skill but their talents as song sculptors. SAJB harvested
some great moments from their deep reservoir of talent on Friday, justifying
their popularity in these.
Friday was full of solid performances, but only a few stand out as truly
memorable. Tim O’Brien (The President
of the International Bluegrass Association, he told us), played a fine set
with distinguished authority and ingenuity. Backed by a band of incredibly
gifted musicians, he strolled though beautiful renderings old and new songs.
Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" was a revelation and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed
and Burning" sent glorious chills through the crowd. O'Brien has one of the
greatest voices in music today. There is no other like it. It's a voice that
cuts to the heart of the music, surrendering itself to the whimsy of the
song, lifting the listener towards the essence of the song. He nailed it on
Friday afternoon. Hopefully, he'll return to the festival soon.
Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, like all trance-based music, is
best enjoyed in motion. Mapfumo, revered at home as the Lion of Zimbabwe,
created "chimurenga" music, so named for the Shona word for "struggle."
Mapfumo built his sound and his name playing for workers during Zimbabwe's
revolution, and his music adopted and maintained a forward-thinking
revolutionary spirit paradoxically rooted in traditional values and
traditional sounds. The mbira, a metal pronged gourd, lies at the heart of
chimurenga, laying entrancing rhythms and looping melodies that the Blacks
Unlimited augment with congas, guitar and sax. This Saturday, two
stone-faced men sat statue-like in chairs with their hands seemingly in
their laps. Their inertia belied their product, as their mbiras wove an
intricate web of melodies at the center of the music. Mapfumo, for his
part, stalked the stage in a half-dance, bizarrely sporting a Dale Earnhart
Goodwrench Mechanic jacket. His resonant voice drew the crowd, and the
rhythms set the throng in motion. The set was mesmerizing, liberating the
mind and invigorating the body like the best trance-based music. The
heavily rhythmic set was something on an anachronism among the drummer-free
droves, and the dancers shook it all out when Mapfumo gave them the chance.
Del and the Boys strolled onto the Hill Country stage looking like they were
right at home. Playing the festival for the last couple of years, the Del McCoury Band has consistently
been one of the most pleasing shows of the festival. The "Learnin' The
Blues" was outrageously good and the "Vincent Black Lightning 1952" pleased
the crowd quite easily. Ronnie McCoury's instrumental "Hillcrest Drive" was
played with his usual lightning fast skills, and the supremely gifted Jason
Carter added thrills and frills throughout the night, giving us another
reason why these guys really are the best. The Hill Country crowd, with its
voracious appetite for all things acoustic, really seemed to give more
energy to the band, their smiles just shining up their in the lights
underneath the stars, as they moved through one hell of a night of acoustic
music. Del, the consummate pro, busted any number of strings throughout the
set, which slowed him down for at least seven seconds.
Following form, the Leftover set was underwhelming, but the Del McCoury/
Leftover Salmon jam was one of the festival highlights. Talent was spilling
over the sides of the stage, as more and more guests joined the fray. Tim
O'Brien, Pete Wernick, and Joe Kraven all stepped in throughout the course
of a jam that hit on a number of standards before launching into a
ridiculous version of John Hartford's "Up on the Hill Where They Do the
Boogie." Vassar and Kraven dueling on the fiddles. Robbie McCoury duking
it out with Neam Pikelny. An electrified Drew Emmett slicing away at Ronnie
McCoury. It was unbeatable. It was exactly the festival spirit Leftover
strives for and so rarely achieves on their own, which may be precisely why
"festival" becomes a running theme for them. It brings out the best in the
band. Of course, that doesn't even begin to explain all that zombie crap.
The campground was predictably rowdy Friday night, with musicians trilling
away till dawn. Pete Wernick joined festival organizer Randy Collier and an
open flow of friends for some of the grounds finer fare. Half of the
weekend's fun is to be found around the fire among the many open and
Saturday started a little early for some of the revelers, but the early
risers caught the Greencards on
the big stage. Few Newgrass bands acquire the requisite timelessness in
order to make their music last. There's usually too much novelty to it for
them to stay around long. While the Greencards are new on the scene, their
potential impact on the Newgrass scene is unquestionable. Their set on
Saturday was one of the best received of the festival, with the crowd giving
more than one standing ovation. Comprising two Brits and an Aussie, they
have not only a unique line-up, but also a one-of-a kind approach to
acoustic music. Fiddle player Eamon McLoughlin, bassist and singer Carol
Young, and mandolinist Kym Warner were in sync throughout the set, easing
themselves into every transition, solo, and crescendo with ease. From the
charming and lucid "You Pulled Me Out" to Gillian Welch's "Caleb Meyer to
"Life's A Freeway (but it ain't free)", the Greencards matched their
excellent choice of songs with their undeniable talent.
Sarah Jorosz, who followed, has a frightfully powerful voice. That's really
the only way to describe it. She could stand 15 feet from the mic belting
"Working On a Building" and still be clear. It seems all the more powerful
blasting out of her slight, twelve year old frame. Initially, it's hard not
to see Sarah Jorosz as a novelty. The middle school mandolinist won her way
into a slot on last year's schedule through the previous year's talent
competition and knocked people out with her voice and her deft picking.
This year, she came with Blue Eyed Grass, a sextet of helpers with her
mother Mary among them. So how does she move beyond the novelty? Sheer
talent. It was impressive when she opened the set with an instrumental of
her own (a stately, circular piece), impressive when she didn't drop a note
on Monroe's "Old Dangerfield," and impressive when she grabbed the upright
bass and bowed her way through a haunting "Orphan Girl" Sunday morning.
Still, it was the late night sit-in on the Grisman set that capped it. She
smoked her "Roanoake" solo. She held her own with Dawg and her teacher
Billy Bright. There was no reason to cut her slack, expect less, or
patronize. She belonged up there.
Sticking to his guns, Peter Rowan
rolled out onstage and did exactly what we expected him to do. He played a
set of pure Bluegrass country music straight from the heart – no frills.
With Billy and Bryn Bright and Vassar Clements in tow, Rowan had
not only some heavy-hittin' acoustic players, but folks who know his music
better than just about anybody alive. "Dim Lights Thick Smoke" was
beautifully played, with Rowan taking full possession of the song's lyrical
and melodic structure. The enigmatically beautiful "In the Pines" and the
classic "Midnight Moonlight" were also played, the latter ending the set
with the gusto and youthfulness that the song demands. While Rowan still
commands immense praise for his work in the past, his current level of
musicianship is seemingly undeterred from the passing of time. He's pushing
the songs to their boundaries and back, and never substituting The old sage
of bluegrass is still passing on the torch, his music still energizing and
able to inspire newcomers, while holding firm onto the music's history.
Two High String Band took the
Bluebonnet Stage looking pro. Decked out in their suits rather than the
regular grubbies, they lit into one of the better sets they have played in
their many years at the festival. In large part, the improvement is in the
songwriting, as this has always been a band that could write and execute
exceptional instrumentals. Jeff Union's "Moonshine Boogie" is possibly the
best original penned by a band member. The Hartford inspired bounce of it
just screams for a fiddle. Billy Bright's "Selma Bam" about the old hometown
is equally as good. The unrhymed verses, chorus-less structure, and social
consciousness all point in interesting new directions for the band. The
instrumentals were sharp as always, with "Dang Howdy" and "Crossing the
Bone" jumping out and the "Masquerade Waltz" laying back beautifully. And
then came Vassar.
Indulge me here. Vassar Clements is like the Kobe Bryant of bluegrass.
Sometimes, he begins a solo and doesn't pass it. Sometimes he solos
(shoots) too much. Sometimes he makes every player on the stage
incalculably better, and sometimes he is so in the zone that his band mates
just stand idly by, gawking at his greatness when they should be playing.
With that nonsense in mind, this was not one of Vassar's better games. Once
he joined the band, the whole set lost focus. Like Kobe, you would never
say, "No," if he were available for a pick up game, but this time he turned
the band into spectators, soloed erratically, and broke the pace of a
chugging set from Central Texas' finest.
Then everything changed. The Motet was
a face slap of rhythm on a weekend generally bereft of drums, and much
ass-shakin' commenced. The band laid a thick, jazzy, rhythm-rich funk on the
crowd that drew new dancers throughout their set like midges to the candela.
The pulsing techno-inspired jam mid-set was an unnecessary nod to current
trends, but when the band sticks to what it does best (that would be
smacking you in the ass with multi-cultural-funk paddle) none do it better.
Meanwhile, in one of the weekend's most anticipated sets, Hot Rize took the big stage. Tim O'Brien,
Pete Wernick, Nick Forster, and recent member Brian Sutton dazzled the crowd
with sheer musical wizardry, pulling soul and feeling out of every moment.
Sutton, a bluegrass guitarist of uncanny ability, played the role of the
sadly departed Charles Sawtelle, who lent his exceptional talents to the
band for many years. Sutton filled the man's shoes quite well. As night fell
on the crowd, they reminded everyone why they're regarded as pioneers in new
acoustic music. The "Land's End", led by Nick and Tim, was an incredible
experience. Those more familiar with the Cheese version would be wise to
seek out the original. Nick and Tim's voices meshed and danced throughout
the song, creating magic. Throughout the night, Wernick's banjo would every
so often glide into a slipstream of psychedelic waves and flourishes, taking
many of the songs out past the boundaries of bluegrass. If this set was any
indication, Hot Rize has made a mighty comeback.
Then the big stage started to feel the slow drag of the day's small lags. By
the time Peter Rowan and Crucial Reggae were scheduled to take the stage,
the David Grisman Quintet finally
emerged. In normal fashion, each member came out one at a time, added a
layer of texture to the sounds, and slowly slid into "Pink Panther> EMD."
Craven was using his kaleidoscopic talent to extract sound from the most
baffling of places. They swept threw numerous tunes, from some of
Spanish-tinged epics featuring the crisp, dazzling work of guitarist Enrique
Coria, to Dawg classics, songs which never cease to astound. Matt
Eakle's flute playing was graceful to downright groovin'. At the set's end,
mandolinists Billy Bright (Two High String Band) and 12-yr old Sarah Jarosz
took front and center, laying down incredible licks along side their idol on
one of the weekend's many versions of "Roanoake." It was a fantastic set,
full of wondrous moments from all the players, easily one the most
exceptionally gifted and in-sync group of musicians anywhere.
The Peter Rowan and Crucial Reggae set suffered most from Saturday's
interminable delays, but the faithful that lingered were not disappointed.
Rowan has been toying with the reggae for a few years now. It's great to
see him up there, looking like a founding father, taking bluegrass a few
hundred miles south to the islands. It's been cute, but the performances
have been loose and redundant. This year's set was another matter. He
arrived with a three piece brass section led by Austinite Ephram Owens on
trumpet, but Vassar Clements damn near made them obsolete. One of the
unwritten rules of the festival over the last few years is "Vassar Plays
What and When He Wants." It usually pays off. Vassar will wander
absent-mindedly up to the stage, appear flustered, and rip off a solo that
surprises everyone with its obscure originality. It's hard to tell if it's
an act. He's a true improviser, hell bent on playing every solo in a way
that no one ever has, himself included, which of course has its drawbacks.
He was dead on for the Rowan set. My show notes dissolve into illegible
curse words as I tried to get it down. It was his best playing of the
weekend, and some of the best I have ever seen him do. With Vassar, the
horns, and percussionist Jeff Hogan, Rowan's experiment burst into a whole
new area. The songs were ostensibly the same – "Fetch Wood and Carry
Water," "Walls of Time," "Little Maggie" – but the energy was unique. Even
when Vassar left stage, "Blue Mountains of Jamaica" swooned into extended
dub with Ephram's reverbed trumpet and Mike Wilson's tenor sax winding
ringlets under a thick bass line and Rowan's voice circling high overhead.
It was beautiful, damn near enrapturing, and proof positive that Rowan is
Saturday night back at the campground offered some of the weekend's finest
fare. Collier's tent was hopping again, with Austin's beloved eccentric Slim Richey centering the
circle. All was right with the world when Ephram strolled in with his muted
trumpet and made it righter. The pick-up ensemble wove its way through a
number of swinging standards with vocalists and soloists popping in and out.
Instruments constantly emerged from the darkness or simply lurked in the
gloaming and sent their sound. Six-string, twelve-string, dobro, mando,
clarinet, accordion, harmonica, bass fiddle, fiddle fiddle, banjo,
everything but a drum and the kitchen sink. The players outlasted most of
the audience, which slowly dispersed around the five o'clock hour.
It's no surprise then that Sundays at the festival are a touch bedraggled.
Those who didn't sleep wander around with rally beers in their hands, and
even those that did look a little fuzzy around the edges. That didn't stop
a pile of folk from dragging over to see Sarah Jorosz again, and none
regretted the effort. Cadillac Sky closed the weekend out, but these
reviewers were beat and wandered away after Jorosz and company tore through
another version of "Singing With Mike," a song about their weekly picking
group in Wimberley. It seemed a perfect way to conclude the festival – a
song set a small hill country town about the simple joy of picking through
songs ages old and fresh out of the box. In many ways, Old Settler's is
just an unbridled version of this, a giant picking party where the same
faces reappear year after year both on and off the stages, maintaining its
continuity and intimacy even as the circle grows.