Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Old Settler's Music Festival preview

Jake Shimabukuro
Jake Shimabukuro

Instrumentalosos

Old Settler's thrives on virtuosic players, and these four are the best at what they do. Slide guitar from Sonny Landreth (Sat., 6:45pm, Hill Country Stage) is unmistakable, whether the longtime Louisianan is adding color to the songs of John Hiatt or, as on his latest LP From the Reach, shooting it out with Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, and Eric Johnson (guesting at the festival perhaps). Sam Bush (Sat., 8:30pm, Hill Country Stage) is one of the wild men of bluegrass, capable of taking mandolin to places it's never been, including space jazz and funky reggae. Celebrated for his fiddle work as well, Bush was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Americana Music Association at the fine young age of 57. A pioneer of contemporary bluegrass with Hot Rize, Tim O'Brien (Sat., 5:15pm, Hill Country Stage) is adored both as a musician and as a songwriter. A wizard on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, and mandocello, he's astounding, whether alone with a guitar or with his loud electric band. Most everyone thinks the ukulele is a toy until they see it in the hands of Jake Shimabukuro (Sat., 1:25pm, Bluebonnet Stage). Having drawn comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, the Hawaiian makes a noise that's the very definition of unique. – Jim Caligiuri

Elliott Brood

1:15pm, Hill Country Stage

No one in this hard-driving alt.country trio from Toronto is named Elliott Brood, a moniker derived from historical obsession. They describe their music as "death country," no doubt because of the dark, earthy nature of their sound and their often somber subject matter. The Juno-nominated outfit is currently working on a follow-up to 2008's acclaimed Mountain Meadows. – Jay Trachtenberg

Jim Lauderdale

2:30pm, Hill Country Stage

Having recently backed Gwyneth Paltrow onscreen in Country Strong, Jim Lauderdale redefines the notion of prolific, coloring every shade of country and bluegrass with heart-worn country soul. Lauderdale's songs have been recorded by artists from the Dixie Chicks to Solomon Burke, and his gritty North Carolina roots have cultivated across the gothic South. – Margaret Moser

Gaelic Storm

3:45pm, Hill Country Stage

Gaelic Storm shot to fame in 1997 as the Irish party band in James Cameron's Titanic – and has yet to land. Their finely spun weave of traditional instrumentation and modern turns on Irish music means the quintet will never have to. – Margaret Moser

Sahara Smith

4:45pm, Bluebonnet Stage

Consecutive years beautifying the Austin Music Awards spotlight the growth of this young Austin native in 2010-2011, and what a year it's been. Besides wrangling T Bone Burnett on last year's debut Myth of the Heart (Playing in Traffic), Smith's navigation of her music business courtship parallels a poise reflected in her live performances. – Raoul Hernandez

The Gourds

10:45pm, Bluebonnet Stage

Fresh off Kevin "Shinyribs" Russell's excellent solo album, last year's Well After Awhile, these cantankerous sour-mashers recently signed to Vanguard Records and are set to record their new album, to be produced by Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, at Levon Helm's barn studio in Woodstock, N.Y. Co-leader Jimmy Smith says it will be the band's most live record to date. – Austin Powell

Foster & Lloyd

9:15pm, Bluebonnet Stage
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

"It's sort of strange and new all over again to be making a record with Bill Lloyd," admits Radney Foster.

In the late 1980s, Foster & Lloyd were one of country music's hottest duos. Over the course of three albums, they coexisted peacefully alongside renegades of the day like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. The pair broke up amicably in 1990, with Foster achieving success in the country and Americana sets, while Lloyd's legend grew among power-pop cultists. With It's Already Tomorrow due next month atop a trademark mix of Everly Brothers, Byrds jangle, and Buck Owens, Foster recalled the pair's one-off reunion at a 2009 Americana Music Association benefit show in Nashville, Tenn.

"Before that show," Foster recalls, "Bill called me and said, 'Why don't we write a new song?' I thought that was cool, and we ended up writing two!"

"It was really a natural thing," explains Lloyd, who, like Foster, is a native Texan. "The only thing we had to prove to ourselves was: 'Let's have fun. Let's make something we're proud of.' There was no A&R staff to stick their fingers in the pie. We just wanted it to feel good."

Lloyd, who served as second guitarist for Cheap Trick when they recreated the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, has recruited the former band's Tom Petersson to play bass on tour. Keith Brogdon from Foster's last backing band plays drums. At South by Southwest last month, only Foster & Lloyd appeared, demonstrating an obvious level of lyrical maturity.

"There are some [new] songs that are from the perspective of someone who's lived a little," Lloyd acknowledges. "Like 'When I Finally Let You Go' is really a goodbye to a daughter from a parental point of view. Those aren't the kind of songs you write when you're 25." – Jim Caligiuri

Richard Thompson

10:30pm, Hill Country Stage
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Richard Thompson ranking as one of rock & roll's class acts comes as no surprise until you consider how little of his career has been spent playing rock. Named one of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists and boasting a BBC Radio 2 Folk Lifetime Achievement Award, the London-born bard founded Fairport Convention, the king of English folk-rock bands in the late 1960s, then collected accolades for such work as 1982's Shoot Out the Lights with his former wife, Linda Thompson. Last year's Dream Attic proves the California-based Thompson possesses a view as broad musically as it is whimsical and thoughtful.

"It's not difficult to go from writing a murder ballad like 'Sidney Wells' to another song like 'Stumble On' [both from Dream Attic]. It's a nice thing to write a very personal song and then say, 'I'll write a story off the top of my head.' It's nice to have a range where you're not just obsessing about yourself and your own dilemma.

"In a song like [Britney Spears'] 'Oops! ... I Did It Again,' I sing it in concert, and I leave a hole for the audience to sing the verse. The younger people know it and sing along, but now there's a larger audience that knows it. It's been a slow, difficult process to get people to relate to this song," chuckles Thompson drolly.

"If you strip away Britney's version – which I quite like; it's very bombastic and dance-oriented – it's very well constructed. The lyrics are good, the melody is interesting, and the chords are interesting. It's nice to reveal that."

While Thompson didn't perform Spears' hit at the Austin City Limits Music Festival last year, he did bring his full band. This weekend, he returns in a trio, mindful of the difference in audience responses.

"In choosing songs for festivals, usually you have a shorter set – 45 minutes or an hour maximum – so you select what you think is your strongest. You have to grab people's attention much more; you're out of doors, people could be plane-spotting or distracted by other stages, food concessions, buying a tie-dyed T-shirt, all these things. You have to crank up the energy level at a festival and keep it up. You can't do too many slow songs, but that's not a rule. If people are really listening, you can do whatever you want.

"One of the things you're looking for as a performer is how the audience reacts, and every audience is different. You can figure out a set, and when you get onstage, you think, 'This is wrong; I have to do something different.'

"I actually do that most nights. I write a set, and then don't play it." – Margaret Moser

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