“This is my favorite night of the festival,” confessed a stagehand in a tie-dye shirt and ball cap. He was working the campground stage, a small pavilion across the street from Old Settler’s main grounds where all of Thursday’s performances took place. “It’s so intimate and everyone is showing up with fresh smiles and fresh festival buzzes going.”
I set up my campsite while Front Country plied their wares. Through the tree line I could hear the San Francisco sextet, fresh from a studio session tracking their debut LP, playing a rural arrangement of Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” fiddle and banjo playfully executing the iconic triplet notes that begin the chorus. It proved a calming soundtrack for my clumsily tangling of a borrowed tent.
My setup was meager. While the other camps in the sprawling Ben McCulloch feature sweet luxuries like foosball tables, juicers, and telescopes, my entire inventory consisted of a simple five items: tent, blanket, bag of tangerines, writing materials, and mandolin. Scratch the tangerines. They were rotten.
As the evening’s second performers, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, an Alabama-based, seven-piece soul act that are hot as fire after South by Southwest, began playing while their lead singer waited out of sight, ready to surprise the crowd. Paul Janeway, you see, doesn’t look like a soul singer. He’s pudgy, pasty, and altogether nerdy looking.
He’s also the real deal and he knows it. With the band warmed up, he strolled onstage, gripped the microphone, and let out a “Baby, baby, baby, baby!” in his trembling, pleading, million-dollar voice. The audience leapt out of its lawn chairs. The dancing didn’t stop for the next hour.
“I don’t know what kind of show you thought you were going to see, but here it is,” announced Janeway, who then ushered in some Sam & Dave-quality dance moves and, later, dropped to his knees and banged his fists on the ground while he sang.
The band was aces behind him, playing tight, hard soul with well-orchestrated horns and tickling Hammond B3 organ. If there was any doubt Otis Redding remains the band’s primary influence, that was extinguished when they finished with a showstopping version of “Try a Little Tenderness.”
That was a tough act to follow, but Parker Millsap succeeded by owning a different vibe with small-town balladry that brought the energy safely back down to earth. With sunlight fading, the Okie songwriter basked in blue stage lights while backed by a tight trio of guitar, violin, and upright bass. His powerful lyricism carry the show, which peaked with a trio of pokes at the religious right: “Old Time Religion,” “Truckstop Preacher,” and “Heaven Sent,” the latter sung from the perspective of a young gay man questioning the church.
Austin’s Wood and Wire preached to the choir with Thursday’s first straight bluegrass set – high and lonesome harmonies, traditional dynamics, songs about trains. The quartet, playing OSMF for the second time (though mandolinist Matt Slusher played many times before with his South Austin Jug Band), impressed with new tunes like charging howler “Dancing On My Grave” and dipped into previously documented material like “Brand New Day,” both sung by guitarist Tony Kamel.
They drew the largest audience of the night, which, after the band closed with a 15-minute bluegrass prog-jazz jam, roared deafeningly and demanded an encore. Wood and Wire acquiesced, laying down a spirit version of Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man” for what was clearly one of the fest’s early peaks.
By the time headliners Donna the Buffalo embarked on a jammy review of zydeco, country, and rock, my ears starting picking up distant transmissions from other parts of the park and I was compelled to follow the sounds. I retrieved my mandolin and scouted the circles ultimately discovering a tequila-shooting gang of grey beards playing a scorching version of fiddle tune standard “Soldiers Joy.”
I shyly entered the circle, which included pickers from Austin, Dallas, New York, and Kentucky, and populated the high-end with some light mandolin leads. I was relieved when the elder banjo wizard looked up at me and said, “Good accompaniment, young man.” From there it was on, swapping songs – traditionals, originals, and John Prine tunes – until well after midnight.
I hit three more jams with varying degrees of quality and talked to hippies and country folk, a civil war enthusiast who outlined Ben McCulloch’s Confederate history, and a group of Texas Tech alums who’ve made a pilgrimage here every year for a decade.
“I hardly care about the music festival portion,” one guy told me. “It’s all about the camping.”
By 4am, the parties had mostly died down, so I decided to turn in then spent 45 minutes looking for my tent. Maybe next year, I’ll add “flashlight” to my lean camping list. When I finally laid eyes on my humble plastic pod a feeling of victory overtook me.
It wasn’t much, but it was home.
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