OLD SETTLER’S FESTIVAL
April 18-21, 2013
Review and photos by BRIAN WISE
The Old Settler’s Festival has been going since 1987 but it is probably Austin’s best-kept secret. It might be overshadowed by the publicity for South By Southwest and the Austin City Limits Festival but this ‘boutique’ festival has its own unique appeal.
Originally started in Round Rock to celebrate bluegrass, the festival has moved twice and its current location is about a 35km drive from downtown Austin. The musical focus is still on bluegrass – The Del McCoury Band and Jerry Douglas were headliners – but is has expanded somewhat.
This year’s lineup featured Son Volt (for me, the standout of last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival), The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The James Hunter Six and Michael Franti (although I could not quite figure out how he fitted in at all). Think Americana and you understand the basic impetus.
The Old Settler’s site is directly adjacent to the famous Salt Lick BBQ. There is also the nearby Ben McCulloch campground for the more adventurous. To many people, the combination of music plus BBQ is a winning one in itself. (There are also some vegetarian and vegan options, but the beef Venezuelan sandwich was my favourite).
There are two main stages, Hill Country and Bluebonnet, the former surrounded by trees, the latter in a grove of live oaks. We discovered that a chair is a necessity, especially for the main stage where the grass is less lush, there are numerous burrs ready to cling to you and there are also tiny thorns with a habit of finding unwelcome places on one’s person. It appears that most other attendees had worked this out some time ago.
The closest Australian comparison to Old Settler’s is the Mossvale Festival in Gippsland, Victoria, which is in a similar setting but about half the size. There was a definite sense of relief for me coming from Bluesfest in Byron to this smaller, entirely enjoyable venue that offers a chance to get close to musicians, either on the stages or at various workshops.
Campers got the chance to start proceedings on Thursday evening in the campground, the rest of us had to wait until Friday afternoon, with Green Mountain Grass and Terri Hendrix. Those who went to the Bluebonnet stage and saw Shreveport ‘gypsy, punk, country, grumble, boogie’ band Dirtfoot, came back raving about them.
Son Volt are touring hot on the heels of their great new country-oriented album, Honky Tonk, and were in peak form. They played 19 songs in an hour and a quarter, with seven from the new album. Highlights included ‘Hoping Machine’, a song for which leader Jay Farrar has set Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music for the New Multitudes project, and an energetic version of Patsy Cline’s ‘Stop The World And Let Me Off’. Hopefully, the band will tour Australia with the new album. It would be a shame if they didn’t.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops on the Bluebonnet stage drew the weekend’s biggest crowd – apart from Michael Franti – and entranced the audience. No doubt their Grammy win and this year’s nomination have created a lot of attention.
Back on the Hill Country stage, Del McCoury got temporarily distracted by a large glowing ice-cream cone on one of the food stalls and completely forgot the lyrics to Richard Thompson’s ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ as he dissolved into a brief fit of giggles. He re-started the song, one of the many requests from the audience, though I don’t think he quite recovered. Nevertheless, the rest of the set went smoothly.
It was great to see Justin Townes Earle with a band because they were able to fully flesh out the songs from his latest album, Nothing’s Going To Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. Having seen him solo acoustic so many times – and he did do a brief bracket here in that mode – it was a revelation. He also previewed some songs from a new album that he is in the process of recording. These days too, it seems that young Justin is talking on stage almost as much as his father!
Fred Eaglesmith closed the evening with an electric set, allowing his band to open the show before running on stage to join them, James Brown style.
Strangely, we were forced to leave before the end of the night because of the intense cold – something I never thought I would experience in Austin! Despite jumpers and jackets, the chill got to us. We suspect there must be global cooling!
On Saturday afternoon, Jerry Douglas played a beautiful and lyrical set, despite being outdoors on the main stage. The irrepressible James Hunter cracked a variety of gags that were almost meaningless to an American audience – but they loved his music and the songs from his latest album, Minute By Minute, even if they were puzzled by his turn of phrase. Martin Sexton provided some patriotism, starting his set with a version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.
The Reivers, back together after a long ‘hiatus,’ began their show on the Bluebonnet stage with a creditable rendition of Neil Young’s ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’. Back on the main stage, Bob Schneider again raised the burning question as to why he is not an international star. It is a definite puzzle.
The festival’s final and, perhaps, major revelation was an hour or so from Peter Rowan and his Twang & Groove electric band. It was fantastic but a bit of a shock if you were expecting a bluegrass set. The powerful ‘Land Of The Navajo’ was an absolute knockout.
The Gourds closed the evening with their distinctive The Band meets Texas sound. They also closed the event on Sunday afternoon, by which stage we were at the MotoGP savouring yet another aspect of an Austin weekend.
Old Settler’s might be a well-kept secret, but it is one that deserved to be shared – but let’s hope it does not get too big. There are few music festivals as enjoyable. I will definitely be back.