11TH OLD SETTLERS MUSIC FESTIVAL
Old Settlers Park, Round Rock, April 3
The friendly banter came to a strangely abrupt stop. "Yeah, this is the first year under that name," said one of the vendors, surveying the spread of CDs before him, looking glum. "It's kind of a sore subject," said his friend, with a half-sad, half-joking smile. The name in question is the "Old Settlers Music Festival," and the change this new moniker brings with it is a big one: less bluegrass. Having blossomed among the bluebonnets for 10 years, remaining devoted to pickin' music all the while, this year's show took on a wider range. "There's no one playing today who I'm not looking forward to seeing, though," offered the first man as qualification for his disdain. The scope of the lineup did indeed prove a nice, easy way to slide into the AAA format, though, and no one on Friday's bill disappointed. Don Walser got things going on the main stage - after a false start; "Oops, started that'n wrong, hee hee," giggled Walser before he and his Pure Texas band tore back into "The Devil's Great Grandson." Lynn Morris followed Walser, sounding like Dolly Parton channeling the spirit of Bob Wills, and in fact, her set provided the only bluegrass the main stage saw all day. On the second stage, High Standard and Feed Bag satisfied that thirst a bit, but Hot Club of Cowtown, recent additions to the Austin music scene, made any and all genre qualifications disappear with their vigorous and stylish swing. This trio won over our neighbors to the north in about 40 minutes, as did Ana Egge in the next slot. Eddie Collins & the Rollers were straight-up bluegrass Texas style, but the transition time from Steve Forbert to Bela Fleck proved a tough time to draw a crowd. Forbert's throat-wringing jerkiness sounded great, and though it's tough to be solo acoustic on a stage that size, by the time he played "Romeo's Song" the grounds were full and singing along. Defacto headliner Bela Fleck & the Flecktones came on next, with Fleck going on to do things on the banjo for which it was never intended. Between him and bass-god Victor Wooten, there was no shortage of dizzying string work, but the connections to bluegrass were strained at best, and as part of the crowd floated in the ecstasy of the Phish-dance, the rest sat slightly confused. There must have been a tear in the eye of that CD vendor. Shawn Colvin closed the proceedings, slightly cranky, allergic, and very pregnant in the cold night air, but by this point, there were other things to do, and the bluegrass was spreading like the trampled wildflowers dotting the fields in small clusters throughout the park. As the stage closed down, this night was only beginning.
- Christopher Hess
11TH OLD SETTLERS MUSIC FESTIVAL
Old Settlers Park, Round Rock, April 4
"I can't believe I had to follow Tony Rice and those people," said Rosanne Cash, lo 'round midnight - the temperature still dropping, the crowd still dwindling. "There should be a contract that says you shouldn't have to follow Jerry Douglas and people like that." Being a good sport, Cash played the line for a laugh, but it was true. No one should have to follow Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Vassar Clements, Ronnie McCoury, and special guest Chris Hillman. No one playing a bluegrass festival, anyway. "Folk festivals always put the headliner before the headliner," said one longtime Kerrville Folk Festival attendee, waving a hand at an audience that was less than half of what it had been for Rowan and company. "It clears 'em out." And how. Still, Cash and husband John Leventhal, female singer-songwriter guru ("My lord and master, the lord of cool - I'm just here to accompany him," was how Cash put it), played their 50 minutes like they meant it, giving thoughtful, intimate readings of Cash nuggets such as "Runaway Train" "What We Really Want," and especially "Tennessee Flat-Top Box." Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas and local bassist Frank Campbell joined Cash and Leventhal for Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" (the program dedicated the entire festival to Van Zandt) and "Seven Year Ache" polished off a day that had started almost exactly 12 hours earlier with Jimmy LaFave and his band. At high noon, on one of the most beautiful spring days you could ever wish for (you couldn't help greeting people with this fact), LaFave's high, sweet voice welcomed chair-laden, ice-chest packing festival folk streaming into the golf-course-looking Old Settlers Park. Through a small city of concession stands, past the Bistro Stage and BMC Software's hoping-to-be-a-stage-someday, across the guitar tent and down to the water, floated his voice. "We flew back on the 9:30 flight last night from Santa Barbara just to be here on this beautiful day," said LaFave. "Me and Jimmie Dale Gilmore - though he took a different flight back." The short intermission between LaFave and Chris Thile & Nickel Creek found Rod Moag pickin' and singin' on the BMC coffee table, but because the festival's schedule of 45-minute sets and 15-minute strip-downs put a new performer on the main stage at the top of every hour, there seemed little time to enjoy the workshops or other aggregate music happening around the grounds. Thile's well-versed mandolin playing could have done without his 18-year-old's banter ("This is a blues song, so... you should listen to it"), but it gave way soon enough to Mollie O'Brien's pure, uplifting folk (think Lucinda Williams via Julliard) and then JPP, a Finnish fiddle quartet that plays haunting, East European chamber music. Bluegrass legend and former Blue Grass Boy Del McCoury got the purists' blood boiling with his hour-long set, during which he and his two boys, banjoist Robbie and mandolinist Ronnie, a fiddler and a bassist, all gathered around one mike and let their high, nasal voices soar ever higher. The healthy festival crowd demanded and got a couple of encores with a standing ovation, including Robert Cray's "Smoking Gun." Tennessee's Fairfield Four, in their matching overalls and green shirts, said grace 'round supper time with their testifyin' gospel music ("Dig a Little Deeper in God's Storehouse of Love"), the five of 'em hitting those deliciously low bullfrog notes on "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." Dressed for worship in their suits, shades, and supercool, the Derailers picked up the staff afterwards and provided the day's most rockin' set, giving way to a 15-minute Celtic/Brazilian interlude by a conglomeration of Sambaxe and Silver Thistle Pipes and Drum - Samba Thistle - which set back the rest of the night's acts at least half an hour for no good reason. As twilight started cooling the day, Rick Danko and Vassar Clements took the stage for what no one except maybe KGSR's Jody Denberg could have expected: transcendence. Reminding everyone present that through the music of the Band, his is the voice of a generation every bit as much as John Fogerty, Jerry Garcia, or Bob Dylan, Danko dug out songs that had baby boomers giving their spouses warm, "remember when" kisses, while the rest sang every word; "Twilight," "Stagefright," "Blind Willie McTell," and "Long Black Veil" with guest Peter Rowan, all sung in that voice - that voice - which stopped time dead for an hour, snapping all the Austin longhairs back to the present with the set-ending "The Shape I'm In." Luckily for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, happy to be off some Santa Barbara airport runway, his voice is nearly as distinct as Danko's, and supported by a cache of his own songwriting gems ("That's what I'm doing these days - mostly my own songs," said Gilmore), his heartfelt slice of Texas folk music rang deep and true. Just as deep and true, however, were temperatures down in the fifties, and while the chill was unpleasant enough, only Rowan's jam could make you forget the cold. And it did, unquestionably, from the opener "Panama Red" through Bill Monroe's "When the Golden Leaves Begin to Fall" and Chris Hillman's two-song set (featuring "Hickory Wind"), all the way to the climactic plateau, "The Waltz of Time," which Rowan, another ex-Blue Grass Boy, said was written after he and his former employer, Bill Monroe, shared a sunrise together. Imagine sharing sunrise with the Father of Bluegrass one morning in your youth. That's what the ensuing jam sounded like - a mystical moment - that, and the mind-boggling 15-minute, acid-folk-trip finisher, "Land of the Navajo." How could anyone follow that? They couldn't, really.
- Raoul Hernandez