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You want variety of music AND weather? The Old Settler’s Music Festival had it covered on Saturday. Blues to bluegrass to country to classical to gospel to folk to rockabilly: Check. Cloudy to light rain to heavy rain to rainbow to sunset to starshine to dense fog? Check.
Storms were in the forecast for much of Central Texas, and they arrived in full at Old Settler’s around 5 p.m., after on-and-off sprinkles throughout the afternoon. The music officially came to a halt at about 5:30 p.m. when the rains grew steady and moderately heavy, though thunderstorms thankfully steered away from the area.
But just like that, the skies began to clear. The sun started peeking through in the west, a faint rainbow briefly appeared in the east, and the Caldwell County raindrops gave way to the California Honeydrops. That was the name of the eclectic, soulful band whose set on the main stage was briefly delayed, but when they took the stage just before 6 p.m., there were broad smiles and sweet sounds all around.
Such is the resilience of the Old Settler’s spirit. The fest’s new grounds — a move to Tilmon, just southeast of Lockhart, followed 16 years in Driftwood — presented modest challenges with the weather, as water collected at a low point in the gravel road en route to the stage area. But vehicles were still able to pass, and grassy parking areas appeared to avoid stuck-in-the-mud dilemmas. This location has a lot of wide-open space, and that allows options to avoid obvious trouble spots.
Musically, the Honeydrops were a midpoint highlight on the heels of an afternoon that got off to a great start. Billy Strings, who impressed mightily on Friday night, returned for a 1:30 p.m. set on the Bluebonnet Stage. I missed that, but arrived just in time to catch Houston’s Sarah Grace & the Soul, winners of the morning’s Youth Talent Competition, pay tribute to Prince with a rendition of “Purple Rain” on the second anniversary of his passing.
Over on the main stage, country-folk troubadour Colter Wall served up hard twang and tales from his upbringing on the Canadian Great Plains. Just 22, Wall sounds like he’s going on 66, possessing a rich and resonant voice that makes his music feel more raw and real than just about any current mainstream country performer. With Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton having become major draws in recent years, the future may be bright for Wall.
Back at the Bluebonnet Stage, a whole different breed of young talent awaited. Darlingside, a quartet from Boston, delighted a crowd that might not have expected to hear such a sophisticated take on roots music. Playing a variety of instruments that went beyond guitar, banjo and fiddle to include cello and what appeared to be a lute-shaped mandolin, they joined voices in radiant harmony around a single microphone at the center of the stage. When light rain started falling near the end of their set, the band gracefully noted that they understood if folks needed to leave, while expressing extra appreciation for those who stayed.
The rains gradually increased over the next hour, a sad development mainly because one of the day’s most lively acts, Michigan powerhouse soul-gospel outfit The War and Treaty, was next up on the Bluebonnet Stage. Led by husband-wife singers Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter, the five-piece band bravely blasted on through the weather, and at least a couple hundred audience members were moved enough by what they heard to stick around for much of the set. On an ideal day, these folks could give a fest-making performance.
After the rain delay and the California Honeydrops’ re-emergence, the skies magically became quite clear. That helped make sets by North Carolina bluegrass band Balsam Range and roots-rockabilly raver JD McPherson all the more enjoyable. Basking in floating bubbles near the children’s area on the Bluebonnet Stage, Balsam Range played an engaging mix of original covers, including John Denver’s “Matthew” and Austin songwriter Walt Wilkins’ “Trains I Missed.” On the main stage, McPherson and his band got the crowd rockin’ just as the sun set over the campground trees.
After dark on the Bluebonnet Stage featured back-to-back slots by rootsy acts loosely tied to the Texas roadhouse circuit. Songwriter Will Hoge lives in Nashville but has developed strong ties here from frequent touring, and he’s honed his stage show into a sharp and lively presentation ranging from power-pop to country-folk anthems. Less effective was Waco’s Wade Bowen, who was dealt a tough hand by recent vocal problems but soldiered on as the clear skies suddenly became shrouded in fog.
Bowen also had the tough task of going up against I’m With Her, the one act that seemingly everybody at Old Settler’s was there to hear. Wimberley-raised Sarah Jarosz, who now lives in New York, is pretty much the face of this festival, having won its inaugural Youth Talent Competition in 2002 as a pre-teen. She’s returned all but two years since, and this time she brought along an all-star team: Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek) and Aoife O’Donovan (from Crooked Still) joined Jarosz for the trio album “See You Around,” released earlier this year.
They played most of the material on that album, spicing things up with a couple of surprises: Jim Croce’s “Walkin’ Back to Georgia” and Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” Near the end of the set, Jarosz gave the festival’s Caldwell County rebirth her blessing. “Even in this new location, it still has the same great vibe, I think,” she said. “You’re true music fans; I always feel that.”
READ MORE: Our 2017 interview with Sarah Jarosz