Old Settler’s Festival – Austin, Texas – Saturday April 12 & Sunday April 13
If you were in the least concerned about the state of roots music, in indeed the state of music in general, then a visit to Old Settler’s this year would have set your mind to rest. Veterans mingled with exciting younger acts to create a weekend of great and often inspiring music.
It might be a ‘boutique’ festival but I am sure the term did not exist when it started 27 years ago with the aim to place good music in a relatively intimate and very audience friendly setting. In fact, I doubt if there is a friendlier audience anywhere either. The day was nearly a sell out and while the crowd reached the back fringes of the site at the main Hill Country Stage it was never uncomfortable. I arrived early placed my $6 chair in a great spot at the main stage and considered it the best investment I had made this week.
Yet there were not only the veterans such as Dr Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury who humbled us with their legendary presence and gave us exactly what we expected there was also a bluegrass legend in Peter Rowan (who actually played with Bill Monroe) reinventing himself brilliantly for an astonishing electric set and giving us something a lot of people might never have expected (I know I didn’t last year).
While the veterans received due respect there were also some relatively fledgling acts on the verge of great things. On Friday it was Shovels & Rope and St Paul & The Broken Bones who promised much for the future and on Saturday there was five-piece all-women bluegrass outfit Della Mae, singer songwriter John Fullbright, The Devil Makes Three and Lake Street Drive who held up the signpost to the future.
Della Mae young bluegrass group of five like-minded women, now based in Nashville, who received a Grammy nomination this year and look and sound like further success is just waiting. Apart from an obvious onstage charisma and chemistry they have plenty of attractive songs.
Della Mae preceded another bluegrass player in Peter Rowan but he was anything but the archetype in this electric set that he likes to call ‘Twang ‘N’ Groove.’ This was my highlight of last year’s event and this afternoon’s show was on a par.
This time there were some bonuses: Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel and dobro and Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo (who spent many years in Australia). If you wanted an example of what the term ‘world music’ meant then this was it, especially when Rowan played ‘Land Of The Navajo’ with Lhamo adding her vocals. When he performed ‘The Walls Of Time’ (which he wrote with Bill Monroe) he called it ‘trans-mountain music.’ The set ended with a marvellous version of ‘Free Mexican Airforce’ which was introduced by a wonderful meandering story from Rowan. Brilliant.
Rowan’s performance at Old Settler’s last year has just been released on CD. Let’s just hope that this year’s finds a similar release.
Del McCoury is a sprightly 75-years old and is in great form with a terrific group of musicians around him. It must be odd for him to find that nowadays one of his most popular songs is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ by Englishman Richard Thompson. This is a testimony to the all-encompassing nature of the ‘Americana’ genre.
John Fullbright is a young musician whose future seems to be completely summed up in his surname. For this incredibly impressive set at the Bluebonnet Stage he showcased songs from his forthcoming album Songs, released May 27. Due to play on the main stage earlier his set was swapped for some reason but the upshot was that he got to play for an extra twenty minutes. Our bonus!
On the strength of this airing it seems absolutely certain that this album is going to be at least as big as his last, which garnered him a Grammy nomination. (‘No pressure at all!’ he laughed when I mentioned this to him after the show).
Fullbright spends equal time on piano and guitar and is adept at both. Some of the standout songs from the new record were ‘Happy,’ the road song ‘Going Home,’ ‘Very First Time’ (‘the first truthful song I’ve written’), ‘ She Knows,’ ‘Never Cry Again’ and ‘Until You Were Gone.’
The surprise of Fullbright’s set was the rocking blues song ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business,’ written by 1920’s piano player Porter Grainger. It is impossible to think that Fullbright will not be huge this time next year.
While Tim O’Brien and Darrell followed Fullbright and dazzled, local hero Sarah Jarosz was on the main stage and charmed everyone there. O’Brien even found time to rush over after his set to guest with Jarosz who credited him with being one of the reasons she was there.
Robert Randolph & The Family Band followed Jarosz on the Hill Country Stage and it would be harder to think of a greater contrast. Seated at his pedal steel Randolph launched into Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ early in the set and this pretty much set the tone. Though he did go back to his early musical roots to close with ‘When The Saints Go Marching In.’
Two bands on the Bluebonnet Stage who received rapturous receptions and, if you were a punter you would be betting to do massive things this year were The Devil Makes Three followed by Lake Street Drive. Different styles but both as effective in getting the audience to its feet.
The Devil Makes Three (Lucia Turino on upright bass, Pete Bernhard on guitar/vocals and Cooper McBean on guitar/banjo) are an absolute force of nature. They describe the music as ‘punkified blues, garage-y ragtime.’ It is definitely old timey but in a way that transcends eras. Selecting liberally from their latest Buddy Miller-produced CD they played as if their lives depended on it. ‘Hallelu,’ with its gospel overtones epitomised their sound.
You could hear the effect that Lake Street Drive had from about half a mile away when the audience erupted at the end of their set. This Boston outfit might have been around for a decade but one suspects that they are on the cusp of greater things. Surely?
As the program was running very late, I had to forego Big Head Todd & The Monsters but knew that I would catch Kevin Russell’s Shiny Ribs tomorrow – though I could not imagine it being better than today.