Out There in the Fresh Air With Utopia, Old Settler's, and Kerrville Folk Festival
Fall fests coax us from the metropolis
What does October make you think of? Halloween, pumpkin spice, trees transitioning from green to autumnal orange? All that – yes – but also: rural revelry soundtracked with live music.
After damn near two years of limited live entertainment options and far too many hours spent staring at screens, it's time to change with the leaves. Music festivals in and around Austin fill up all five weekends of this glorious month when the weather stops sucking – some of them double-stacked. And we're in a particular stretch of that hallmarked by campable family-friendly events outside the city limits.
So let's load up the car with family and friends, unpack our tents, and reconnect with nature by pooping in the woods. There's plenty of action out there in the fresh air.
The Utopia(Fest) You’ve Been Searching ForDates: Thu.-Sat., Oct. 14-16
Price: Weekend $209, Thursday $30, Saturday $110 (includes camping)
Distance from Austin: 63 miles (Burnet)
When I first met Travis Sutherland, he worked security at concerts – funny to think about because one of the hallmarks of his own festival, Utopia, is that you hardly notice a security presence. There are, of course, concert safety specialists at the gathering that he's thrown for 12 years, down at his family's ranch in Uvalde County's hamlet of Utopia, Texas, and at Reveille Peak Ranch in Burnet County, but they don't have an enforcer-type vibe because the event attracts people who've bought into "the Utopian Way," which emphasizes things like mutual respect and not talking over performances.
"It's about being a good neighbor and a good fester by making the party as enjoyable as you can for everybody," Sutherland explains of the fest's stated values.
After a year off due to COVID-related artist cancellations, the limited-capacity fest returns to Burnet this week with a lineup largely focused around Central Texas talent, plus returning national acts that fall under Utopia's stylistic umbrella involving funk, roots, jam-adjacent outfits, rock, and dance music. "This year feels full circle, just like in 2009 when I invited a bunch of my friends out to the pasture," reports Sutherland. "I know all the bands personally."
The family-friendly, experiential gathering – which prides itself on no overlapping music, a BYOB policy, free car camping, and a general lack of lines and chain-link fences – also includes mountain bike tours, nature workshops, and a Zen City late-night stage for those indifferent to sleep.
While Utopia's 2021 return notches as a slight scaling back, the organization has released a wide-ranging schedule of forthcoming gatherings that include seven events over the next 3½ years taking place in Burnet and Utopia, Texas. This includes two festivals oriented around solar eclipses, peaking with a monumentally rare total eclipse in April 2024. – Kevin Curtin
Utopians of Note
Polyrhythmics (Thu., 8:45pm) Horn-imbued progressive funk ensemble from the city of the falling rain.
Matthew Logan Vasquez (Fri., 8pm) Delta Spirit frontman whose solo work mixes thoughtful lyricism with contagious choruses and high-energy showmanship.
Trouble in the Streets (Fri., 9pm) Heavy electronic R&B trio whose singer Nnedi Nebula Agbaroji stands among Austin's most dynamic vocalists.
Sir Woman (Fri., 10pm) Wild Child co-lead Kelsey Wilson's expansively grooved and attitude'd R&B project with members of Lunar Rae, who are also performing Friday.
Mikaela Davis (Sat., 6:15pm) Enchanting songwriter plucks heart strings with harp strings and is known to unleash stirring Dead covers.
Tephra Sound (Sat., 7:15pm) Melodic volcanic fragments exploding from drums, cello, and piano.
Garrett T. Capps w/ Augie Meyers (Sat., 8:15pm) Cosmic honky-tonk Texas music melting pot from San Antone playing with Doug Sahm's keyboardist.
Shinyribs (Sat., 9:30pm) Swaggering, struttin' showstoppers of swamp funk merriment.
Rubblebucket (Sat., 11pm) Bouncy, delightful indie-pop duo with global-groove elements and smart sonic touches.
Old Settler's Music Fest Regroups on the HomesteadDates: Thu.-Sun., Oct. 21-24
Price: Weekend $189, Thursday $50, Friday $90, Saturday $99, Sunday $50
Distance from Austin: 49 miles (Dale)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – all familiar times for the Old Settler's Music Festival over the past few years.
In 2019, OSMF had settled into their new home on 145 acres just south of Lockhart. Following a highly public internal conflict and the unceremonious loss of their Salt Lick Pavilion location, the land represented a fresh start and new era for the three-decade-old event. And to signal that the circle would indeed remain unbroken, they booked their highest profile lineup ever, with Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile headlining the April weekend of Americana and roots.
When the pandemic forced cancellation of both the 2020 and the spring 2021 event, OSMF seemed back at square one. They had to halt improvement plans for the land and let go of their festival director, the nonprofit organization's only paid position.
"We were very fortunate that most ticket holders said they wanted to hold on to their tickets. We've got a great audience, a lot of repeat people from multiple years, so great support," offers OSFM President Kevin Vaughn. "We had good support from our artists, and the same with some of our vendors. While it was really painful to have to unwind it at the time, it was really great to see just the wide and deep support for Old Settler's across the board."
"To get us back together, that's the first thing," attests Diana Harrell, who took the reins as festival director to put together the event in under four months. "We always call it our family reunion, and this is a generational festival. You have folks who grew up coming to Old Settler's Festival and now they're parents and bringing their children. It's like bringing your family back out to the old homestead."
While the festival plans to return to its usual spring timing next year, the 33rd OSMF convenes a scaled-back fall lineup that necessarily leans heavily on Central Texas talent. Familiar strings return in the form of Sam Bush and the Travelin' McCourys, but it's the new crop of local artists taking over the festival's two stages that signals renewal. Kalu & the Electric Joint, Jade Bird, and Jackie Venson all slot hometown headlining positions, along with a powerhouse collaboration between Carolyn Wonderland and Shelley King.
"It is a confirmation or affirmation of the Old Settler's spirit and vibe, of just people making it happen and doing it out of a love for the music and each other," affirms Vaughn. "We wouldn't be where we are if we didn't have the support of our volunteers. Doing this was all based on knowing we had rock-solid support from our volunteers. Coming through this hell of a year and a half, this is just another example of where Old Settler's has faced a tough time, and there have been many in the past and we've gotten through them and come through the other side stronger. In some ways, it just feels like an affirmation of that really deep thing that Old Settler's has going for it." – Doug Freeman
OSMF Beyond Austin
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers (Fri., 2pm) North Carolina's Shook slices her alt-country and hard-stepping honky-tonk with a punk attitude and energy. The Bloodshot Records linchpin follows up 2018 breakout Years with two albums already recorded and ready for release next year, striking both more mature and determinedly outspoken.
Kelsey Waldon (Fri., 5:30pm) Kentucky-raised Waldon became the first artist signed to John Prine's Oh Boy Records in over a decade for 2019's third LP, White Noise/White Lines. Easy to understand the appeal of her personal, down-home ballads injected with a burning rock attitude.
Della Mae (Fri., 7:20pm) "How long will there be no one to sing these songs?" mourns Della Mae in opening this year's fifth LP, Family Reunion. The Grammy-nominated Boston quintet strings traditional with a fury and a female-focused mission epitomized by 2020's exceptional Headlight.
Fruition (Fri., 9:55pm) In just over a decade and seven albums, this Portland quintet has evolved into a festival favorite behind energetic folk ballads and jam band breakdowns. Last year's Broken at the Break of Day settles in with easy-rolling, earworming rhythms and bright harmonies.
Cedric Burnside (Fri., 10:35pm) With I Be Tryin', Burnside's latest offering, the bluesman strips down to the essential and scorches one of the best releases of his double Grammy-nominated career. Burnside doesn't just keep the unique North Mississippi blues sound alive, but pushes forward into the 21st century.
Jeremie Albino (Sat., 3:35pm) Albino's haunted croon mesmerized on 2019 debut LP Hard Time, a mix between Marlon Williams and fellow Canadian troubadour Corb Lund. Laced between ballads, Albino moves equally comfortably with rockabilly roar and slide blues licks.
Sierra Ferrell (Sat., 4:40pm) Rounder Records quickly nabbed Ferrell for her debut LP, this year's Long Time Coming. The West Virginia native mesmerizes with an anachronistic twang and jazz-inflected country sound.
Logan Ledger (Sat., 5:15pm) With a gorgeous throwback croon, Ledger's eponymous 2020 debut LP landed production from T-Bone Burnett, who unraveled the Bay Area-born songwriter's sound into classic country, swaying Fifties ballads, and even noirish psych folk.
Welcome Home to Kerrville Folk Festival
"'Welcome home' has always been our saying, but this year it's really been true," Kerrville Folk Festival Board Member Dave Obermann told the Chronicle. After taking an unprecedented year off in 2020, the music-and-camping constant once again received their dedicated festers – in a limited capacity of 250 fully vaccinated people per night – over the last two weeks. Sorry, we're informing you late, but you'll want to start planning for next October's 50th anniversary. Obermann reported that the "energy was just extraordinary," with a music lineup ranging from post-genre pop one-man band Mobley to reformed folk revival institution the Limelighters. We asked one performer, Austin's top-shelf fiddler/songwriter/guitarist Beth Chrisman, to pen us a Kerrville diary after performing on the first weekend. – Kevin Curtin
Kerrville Folk Fest is one of those places that inspires a kind of cult-like following. I first heard of it back in 2007, when I lived at a hippie house named Jah's Mahal. I had about 14 roommates who were perennial volunteers at Kerrville, usually spending at least a month camping at the Quiet Valley Ranch. They tried to recruit me to go with them, telling stories of the epic jams, communal kitchens, and lazy days in the river. As a recent transplant from Alaska, camping for weeks in Texas summer sounded like hell to me, so I didn't go. When I would run into the old roomies around town, without fail they'd ask me when I was coming out to Kerrville.
As I spent more time in the music scene, I realized it was a big deal to play the fest. Some of my biggest songwriting heroes like Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark had graced the stage, along with legends like Odetta and Mike Seeger. After about five years of working my way up the music ladder, I got the honor of playing the main stage with my pal Brennen Leigh. The next few years I got to be a regular, playing with my bands the Carper Family and High Plains Jamboree, as well as fiddling with Noel McKay and Bill Kirchen. All the times of playing the fest though, I never quite understood the whole Kerrville experience. Granted, I didn't allow myself a full immersion, sticking close to backstage and hitting the road or checking into the hotel soon after our sets. When I was gigging 250-300 shows a year, the last thing I wanted to do was pick with folks I didn't know or sleep in a tent. One of the curses of working full time in the music world is that it can turn you into a bit of a jaded curmudgeon.
This year definitely changed my appreciation of the festival. In August, the board decided to implement some of the most serious COVID restrictions around, requiring all performers, staff, volunteers, and attendees to show proof of vaccination. It felt so good to know that every human there had done their part to try to end the pandemic. It relieved the burden of stress that has come with accepting every gig since things reopened. While it's still possible that there will be COVID spread, knowing that it was highly unlikely to cause anyone serious illness took the guilt off performers' shoulders.
In years past, I was definitely suffering from what a lot of my friends call "people burnout." I didn't really appreciate strangers telling me "welcome home" when checking in the front gate or the constant stream of invites to come to people's camps. After a year spent mostly in my tiny apartment with my boyfriend and Netflix and livestream shows, the communal vibe was incredibly endearing. Old acquaintances who used to hug-bomb me asked permission before giving at least a minutelong hug. Festival and band T-shirts, hippie smells, and gigantic smiles are in abundance. Almost every person I met this year had stories to tell about how many years they've been going, songs they wrote, and musical partners they found in years past. Everyone there was just so happy to be at a music festival with their friends again and that joy was contagious.
If Kerrville isn't quite home for me, it was a lovely visit to one of the friendliest events I've ever been to. After hanging out with all the regulars and so-called "Kerrverts," I'll be back soon whether I'm on the main stage or not.
In the meantime, my all-time favorite Texas festival is coming up soon, the Austin String Band Festival. Hosted by the Austin Friends of Traditional Music, you won't find many singer-songwriter circles or guitar pulls, instead rowdy bluegrass pickin', grooving old-time jams, maybe a little bit of Cajun, honky-tonk, or early jazz if you stay up late enough. This year they have dropped the stage shows and workshops, instead holding a campout jam weekend, October 15-17 at Camp Ben McCulloch. – Beth Chrisman