The Austin Chronicle

In With the Old, in With the New

By Kevin Curtin, April 24, 2017, 2:30pm, Earache!

By the time Wood & Wire took the stage Saturday afternoon, the chill had already sent Old Settler’s core audience back to their Subarus to exchange sandals and tie-dye shirts for boots and heavier layers, save for one shirtless man in a gold sequined cape.

Nevertheless, the festival’s Bluebonnet stage area remained a dense sea of lawn chairs for Austin’s busiest bluegrass band, proving that a 3:20pm set time is sweeter here than other music fests. The quartet, comprised of singer/guitarist Tony Kamel, banjoist Trevor Smith, mandolin picker Billy Bright, and bassist Dom Fisher, practically live at OSMF, which began Thursday afternoon and ran through the Sunday dinner hour. The locals have appeared in Driftwood four of the past five years.

Fisher’s individual highlight had already occurred two evenings earlier – on the first night of the festival’s 30th annual iteration. That’s when he filled in on upright bass during a jaw-dropping performance by young flatpicking phenom Billy Strings. Of course his regular gig triumphed Saturday with bull’s-eye execution of originals “Coal Mining One” and “Anne Marie” that again proved the local middleweights could hold their own on a big stage.

As per usual, OSMF proved first and foremost a family event. Generations of Central Texans spread blankets together on the grass. The crowd’s always disarmingly good-natured, too, engaging in impromptu Beatles sing-alongs on the shuttles, welcoming strangers into late-night pickin’ circles in the campground, and delivering misplaced wallets to the lost and found without taking any money out.

Trust me on that last one especially.

Observers of OSMF’s three-decade history, which began in Round Rock as the Old Settler’s Bluegrass & Acoustic Music Festival, weren’t surprised at the lineup for the festival’s diamond anniversary, largely stocked with recycled favorites. Still, new blood pumped into Saturday night’s soundtrack. Making her Driftwood debut on the heels of recent personal best Highway Queen, 33-year-old Nashvillian Nikki Lane kicked ass in white cowboy boots.

Known for attitude-driven country, Lane’s guitar-heavy backing quartet rocked when covering Waylon Jennings’ “Waymore’s Blues.” Later, new single “Jackpot” came off as exactly that when she cashed out her 45-minute set. Waylon worship continued with his unlikely one-time collaborators the Old 97’s blazing through “The Other Shoe,” after which Lane jumped back onstage to join the Americana-infused Big D power-pop quartet on new single “Good With God.”

The Tennessean recently appeared with the Texans on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and on the grounds of the Salt Lick the two acts’ strong chemistry even brought attention to the fact that Lane and Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller currently share the same haircut. The group’s hits preceded them, with “Question” and “Timebomb” getting big responses at their inaugural OSMF appearance.

Fellow first-timers Los Lobos made their mark with a typically commanding performance, headlining the larger Hill Country stage late in the evening. The melodic rock of early highlight “Will the Wolf Survive” unfolded into cumbia rhythms motored by acoustic sections, Louie Pérez’s hummingbird-like jarana guitar strums, and eventually an earthquaking cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” By then, temperatures fell below comfort level, but a large crowd stayed to see the East L.A. heroes’ authoritative 90 minutes.

If Old Settler’s felt different this year, chalk it up to the layout. As explained in the printed program, festival-goer’s had been tearing up the BBQ mainstay’s most picturesque nook, often used for weddings. Organizers thus moved the Bluebonnet stage upriver to a previously unused area of the property and then pivoted the Hill Country stage 90 degrees.

The result proved surprisingly enjoyable. The two areas now feel like totally separate environments as opposed to different ends of the same field. What felt less different were the signature performers who sojourn to Driftwood spring after spring.

Peter Rowan, whose name can be found on 14 of the last 21 OSMF posters (documentation is scant before 1997), may be the event’s ultimate regular. Still, his Zen folk again transcended. Loose, vibey, and ultimately stirring versions of “Land of the Navajo” and “Midnight Moonlight” provided the highlights.

Across the park, another one-time employee of Bill Monroe, Mr. Del McCoury, 78, reunited with OSMF for the fourth time in five years. Flanked by equally talented sons Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury manning banjo, the genre vanguard’s agile voice jumped like a frog on “Walk Out in the Rain” and provided the fest’s most undiluted bluegrass experience.

“One of the greatest artists who ever lived died a year ago yesterday,” Sarah Jarosz told a huge mainstage audience after playing material from last year’s Grammy-winning LP Undercurrent. Sheathing her octave mandolin in favor of a regular-sized mando, the young Austin-born singer, 25, launched into a stunning take of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” that included a highly flourished mandolin solo that brought down the house.

From winning the fest’s Youth Talent Competition in 2002 to collecting two Grammy statuettes this year, Jarosz could easily qualify as Old Settler’s greatest local success story. That’s if it weren’t for Kevin Russell’s funky swamp soul roots project Shinyribs.

A mandatory festival booking since Russell’s previous OSMF favorites the Gourds broke up, the Austin eightpiece hulks superhuman at their homegrown folk fest. Saturday night’s co-headlining appearance presented another excuse for Russell & Co. to pull out all the stops. Capping a concert showcasing the leader’s deceptively nimble dance moves, heartfelt singing (“Take Me Lake Charles”), and ludicrous chow anthemry (“Donut Taco Palace”), Shinyribs lubricated souls and propelled asses into motion with a closing ceremony that segued “Sweet Potato” into Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” while beautiful backup dancers winged around the stage like birds.

In between traditionalism and modernity, Shinyribs has elbowed out room for revelry. Old Settler’s Music Festival No. 30 followed suit.

Friday & Saturday photo gallery.

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