At the halfway point of Old Settler’s Music Festival’s second go-round on its new grounds in rural Caldwell County, it seems clear that 2019 is one of the festival’s best years ever.
The music got off to a good start on the campground stage Thursday evening, with hundreds of mostly overnight campers catching sets by local favorites the South Austin Jug Band and Jaimee Harris plus touring acts Mipso and Feeding Leroy.
Friday, thousands more poured into the remote site about 20 minutes southeast of Lockhart as headliner Jason Isbell and nine more acts played from late-afternoon till well past dark on a mild spring night that was nearly perfect for an outdoor festival.
What stood out especially on Friday was how strong the music was across the board. Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland, accompanied by guitarist John Calvin Abney, set a high bar with a 4 p.m. opening set on the Black’s BBQ main stage, while San Antonio band the Last Bandoleros kicked up dust with a rocking set on the smaller Bluebonnet Stage around the corner.
Native Texan Amanda Shires was next on the main stage, and while she accompanied her husband Isbell later for an acoustic set of Isbell’s material, her presentation of her own music was far more electric. Switching between guitar and fiddle and accompanied by a five-piece band, Shires showcased material from her acclaimed 2018 release “Parking Lot Pirouette.”
Meanwhile, English R&B/soul master James Hunter and his five-piece band won over the crowd on the Bluebonnet Stage with a solid hour-plus of good-time grooves. By the time bluegrass legend Del McCoury and his crew followed back on the big stage, the sun was setting and the spacious field had largely filled up with what looked like a significantly larger crowd than the festival drew last year.
Around the corner, Austin-based Americana showman Robert Ellis laughed at the tough break of playing opposite McCoury — “What are y’all doing here? Go see Del!” — but in fact he delivered a consistently entertaining and uplifting 75 minutes of material focused on his recent breakthrough album “Texas Piano Man.” The audience especially appreciated his drawn-out jazz-jam take on George Strait’s signature tune “Amarillo By Morning” near the end of the set.
Isbell’s headlining slot followed on the big stage, and if it seemed unusual to book the Grammy-winning artist and his 400 Unit band to play a seated acoustic set just as the fest was hitting high gear, that quickly proved to be a brilliant choice. Old Settler’s reserves its 10:30 p.m. slots for louder and brasher acts — on Friday, Austin faves Shinyribs and the Black Pumas brought it all home — but the 9 p.m. hour has often been a place for the festival to put the focus squarely on songwriting, and Isbell’s acoustic set was golden in that regard.
Having Shires back in the mix was also a huge benefit. When Isbell and the 400 Unit played last summer at Bass Concert Hall, she was off touring her own album, and though the band can pull it off on their own, her absence left a palpable void. On Friday night, they sounded whole again, and the acoustic arrangements underscored Isbell’s poignant lyrics on “24 Frames,” “Hope the High Road,” “Elephant” and other crowd favorites from his past few records.
About the only down side was that North Carolina’s brilliant Mandolin Orange were playing around the corner, with about an hour’s worth of overlap between the two sets. Still, choosing between two transcendent musical experiences is a pretty good problem to have. We managed to catch about half of each act’s performance, and that felt like a perfect balance between two artists whose respective sounds complemented each other perfectly.
Just as husband-wife Isbell and Shires create musical magic together, so too do Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, the duo that has gradually brought Mandolin Orange from small-club act to festival and theater draw in the past five years. Toting their six-month-old baby Ruby with them on this trip, they grinned that the ability to tour by bus came just in time. But no couple could be more deserving: There’s a natural beauty in the sounds these two make on guitar, mandolin and fiddle that feels as old as the Appalachians, and as sweet as a Carolina summer breeze.
It was a perfect last thing to hear before we headed home, leaving the late-night revelers and weekend campers in the good hands of Shinyribs and the Black Pumas. Old Settler's will do it all again on Saturday, though rain looked like a potential threat to some early-afternoon sets, with a severe thunderstorm watch in effect. But conditions are expected to clear by midafternoon, which should bring clear skies for headliner Brandi Carlile, Austin’s Hayes Carll and Wild Child, and many other Saturday acts before Sunday afternoon’s finale with another set from Shinyribs.