It was a fine Saturday night in the Texas Hill Country for the peak of this year’s Old Settler’s Music Festival, an annual event since 1987. The festival technically takes place in Round Rock, about 20 miles west of Austin, but the event is full of that classic Austin flavor and is therefore advertised as such.
Most folks look like they’ve been camping for a couple days since the beginning of the fest on Thursday, but there was still plenty of great music to take in even if you had just arrived for Saturday evening’s lineup. The grounds are green and feature lots of trees, so the air smells fresh and good vibes abound.
The set-up features a typically kind selection of microbrews, local foods, and vending, all of which gives off a vibe somewhat similar to that of Northern California’s High Sierra Music Festival. This must be what has drawn San Francisco’s New Monsoon back for their fourth year at the fest, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves, for they are scheduled as the evening’s grand finale.
First up at 6:45 pm is Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women, and a surprise treat they are. The bluesman and former Blaster is featuring his new project here, backed by an ultra-talented all-female backing band whose instrumental skills and vocal harmonies fit the warm Hill Country evening like the proverbial glove. Featuring Cindy Cashdollar and Nina Gerber on guitar, vocalist Christy McWilson, violinists Laurie Lewis and Amy Farris, bassist Sarah Brown and drummer Lisa Pankratz, the only thing these women are guilty of is sounding great.
Alvin leads the ladies through a 75-minute set that mixes country Americana with blues and rock for a tasty stew that hits all kinds of notes. Between the pedal steel guitar, the violins, and soulful backing vocals, the band delivers a rich sound that would seem to promise a stellar debut album for the lineup.
By the time the set ends, Ray Wylie Hubbard is already well into his set on the second stage and going strong. An elder statesman of the Texas music scene, some younger artists have come to calling him “Wylie Lama” and the reason for this becomes apparent as Hubbard delivers bits of his bluesy wisdom between songs. Hubbard plays an old Dobro for much of the set and his bluesy slide licks hit a chord with old and young alike, as kids hula-hoop both toward the back and on the side.
Hubbard tells us that the guitar originally belonged to his grandfather, who didn’t play that well, explaining that he talked him into giving it to him while his grandfather was on his deathbed, which gets a chuckle. Hubbard then delivers a lively rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that gets the crowd singing along, and speaks of how “the First Amendment is first” and says that musicians such as Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe have killed more people with their insightful songs than Ice-T and 50 Cent. “John the Revelator” rocks the assembled, with some psychedelic lighting coming into play now that the sky has darkened.
Then it’s back to the main stage for the double-treat of The Travelin’ McCoury’s with The Lee Boys. Both bands had played their own sets earlier in the day, but the combination here of “bluegrass and sacred steel” makes for one of the most unique performances of the season. As the sons of bluegrass legend Del McCoury, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and banjo player Rob McCoury deliver an old school throwback to another era. Florida’s Lee Boys have a classic vibe themselves, featuring pedal steel guitar many would find reminiscent of Robert Randolph.
There’s about 12 people onstage but the sound has that perfect balance of being tight, yet still loose. “What you say Ronnie?” asks rhythm guitarist Alvin Lee after a hot jam. “That’s some funky bluegrass, I didn’t know we had it in us,” responds Ronnie McCoury. The sound is dialed in just right, with the bluegrass instruments still shining through the mix amidst the blues power.
The Big Dipper and Arcturus shine bright above the stage as the ensemble launches into a massive rendition of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”. Pedal steel maestro Roosevelt Collier (a nephew of the Lee Boys) shines here with his smoking licks recalling both Hendrix and the more recent work of Randolph and Ben Harper. But the mandolin and banjo solos captivate as well, making this one of the most unique versions of the classic song ever rendered. The crowd is enthralled as the band wraps up their 90-minute set.
Back over on the second stage, Marc Broussard’s rhythm & blues sound is wafting through the air. The singer-songwriter has a soulful style that recalls the gritty vocals of Ben Harper, which comes in handy when ending the set with a powerful take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.
Most of the crowd gathers back at the main stage for headliner Robert Earl Keen, a honky tonk Texas troubadour with quite a following—some fans say they only just arrived just to see Keen. The performance is also broadcast across the planet to Texas National Guard Troops in Iraq. They don’t have much to say during a brief pre-show chat and it’s obvious they sure wish they were back in the Lone Star State quaffing some brews and listening to the blues.
Keen’s sound clearly appeals to a large audience, but for the rock ‘n’ rollers on hand, the only place to be at 11 pm is back at the second stage for New Monsoon.
The jamrock quintet from San Francisco have slowly but surely built a steady following over the past few years with their eclectic blend of classic rock, psychedelia, world rhythms, and rich harmonies. The band clearly has a thing for Texas too, not only playing their fourth Old Settler’s Fest according to acoustic guitarist Bo Carper, but also having recorded their brand new double live CD during a Texas three-step through Austin, Dallas, and Houston last fall.
The funky “Greenhouse” is an early highlight, with guitarist Jeff Miller demonstrating his considerable chops. Able to channel influences from Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana to Joe Perry and Warren Haynes into one smoking lick after another, Miller leaves no doubt that he’s one of the most underrated guitarists on the national scene.
Miller, Carper, and keyboardist Phil Ferlino form the band’s core, but newer members Marshall Harrell (bass) and Sean Hutchinson (drums) have clearly come into their own. They’ve only just made their recording debut with the band on the new live album, but the chemistry is as if they’d been here all along.
“Trust in Me” lifts the set higher with Miller and Carper teaming up for some soulful vocals about having to go it alone sometimes to overcome certain adversities on life’s winding road. It is tunes like this that help give New Monsoon a deeper subtext than many of their contemporaries in the jam scene.
Carper dazzles on banjo during “El Fuego”, as the band rages out on an older classic that fits in perfectly here under the Texas moon. The band is supposedly scheduled for only an hour, but they manage to skillfully jam out the set closer to 90 minutes. The crowd is still demanding more though, and management fortunately brings the group back for one more.
The encore features the newer “The Other Side” from the band’s last studio album. The bluesy syncopated rocker puts an appropriate cap on the evening with the band singing of “sitting on the ground so long in San Antone,” about 75 miles away. Miller’s wah-wah licks smolder on top of the psychedelic organ work from Ferlino, who than adds his own groovy solo, all held down by some tight snare and cymbal work from Hutchinson.
Thank goodness some California bands realize what a musical Mecca South Texas can be. Now if only more of the Bay Area’s finest would follow suit.