While my colleagues have regaled you with tales and reviews of the annual over-indulgence in Austin known as South by Southwest, I’ve found myself over the past few years gravitating to the far, far less heralded (and far, far less crowded) Old Settler’s Music Festival a couple of weeks later in the month. Beating out Merlefest by a week, it signals the beginning of the camping and music season for festivarians attracted to Americana and roots music shows. This year’s lineup spanned the genres from popular roots rockers the BoDeans to traditional bluegrass group The Travelin’ McCoury’s to singer-songwriter icon Fred Eaglesmith. As usual, the best sets included scorchers by well known names as well as surprises from up-and-comers. Here were my favorites.
First, as a bit of color on the non-musical setting of OSMF, it needs to be noted that Friday morning opened with downpours of biblical fortitude. Low spots turned to ponds and exposed earth quickly transformed into mudpits. The festival organizers moved the smaller Bluebonnet Stage into a covered pavilion, and turned the small venue into an ad hoc Texas roadhouse.
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet With 30+ years together as a Cajun band, it’s no surprise these guys can really work a crowd. Having moved indoors, they wasted no time in getting the entire crowd on its feet and completely forgetting the weather. They sent a lot of people back to the campground with a newly undampened spirit.
Great American Taxi Featuring Vince Herman, formerly of Leftover Salmon, this group is quickly making a name for itself on the road. But they’re not just a reincarnation of the legendary jam band. Instead, they put together a tight experience that sounds like a studio recording in concert. Combining rock, country, and bluegrass, they have a sound that’s a little reminiscent of the Bakersfield vibe, kind of a "high lonesome rock and roll".
Sarah Jarosz, The Fire Ants Two different acts, but tied together in the category of The Future of Americana by dint of still being in high school. Sarah Jarosz won the talent competition at OSMF a few years ago at the ripe old age of 12. Since then, she’s played with the likes of David Grisman, Tim O’Brien, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, and Darrell Scott. Initially a mandolin virtuoso, she’s transformed herself into a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire. With bandmates Sam Grisman and Alex Hargrave, she has her first record due out in a few weeks, and you need to check it out. The Fire Ants were last year’s talent winners, and they opened Saturday festivities with a set featuring several bluegrass instrumentation versions of 70′s songs they probably heard on their grandfather’s vinyl. There was no other word for a bluegrass take on the classic rock song, Frankenstein , than FUN.
The Travelin’ McCourys & The Lee Boys I don’t even know where to begin to describe this collaboration. The Travelin’ McCourys are those McCourys of bluegrass fame. The Lee Boys are an ultra-funky, gospel-rooted, rhythm and blues tour de force. They performed together on the main stage on Saturday night, and it was an aural spectacle. The best selections were material from the Lee Boys punched up with fiddle/banjo/mandolin/guitar solos from the McCoury band. That makes it sound a little like 2 bands performing on the same stage, which doesn’t begin to offer any insight to what the performance was really like. The bluegrass instrumentals really added a new axis and brought the whole to be more than the sum of the parts. The trade-off jams between Ronnie McCoury’s lightning-in-a-bottle mandolin and Roosevelt Collier’s howling, screaming steel guitar were simply amazing. They have a few more performances scheduled and I suggest you go out of your way to see them if they’re in the area.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women What started as a one-off performance at last fall’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival has now become a full fledged act with an album due out shortly. With all the superlatives I used to talk about The Lee Boys and the McCourys, it may seem hard to believe that Dave Alvin and his all-female band of virtuosos was my favorite act of the festival. I suppose it’s because beneath the iconoclastic reputation of Alvin and the all-star talent, camera-friendly cast of the Guilty Women, there lurks the heart of Americana and roots music. Alvin’s lyrics tell stories that evoke a time, a place, a person that we’ve all known. Add to that the layers and harmonies and experience of the rest of the group and their set on Saturday night was why I love going to see live music.
In addition to the above mentioned sets, there were some great moments with The Gourds on Thursday night, the Greencards on Friday, and the Lovell Sisters (who are a good PR agent away from becoming America’s musical sweethearts) on Saturday afternoon.
So if you’re in Austin for SXSW next year, consider hanging around an extra week, see how great the music scene is there even when there isn’t an event in town, and then take in Old Settler’s Music Fest.
All photos courtesty John Grubb and Old Settler’s Music Festival
About the author: Support new music. Listen to a band or singer you've never heard of this week. I've been doing that for over 30 years.