The Who’s “Tommy” gone bluegrass, and more from Friday at Old Settler’s

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Bluegrass band the HillBenders perform the Who's "Tommy" at Old Settler's Music Festival on Friday, April 15, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

When all goes well at Old Settler’s, it’s hard for any area music festival to be better. Friday felt like one of those days, with mild temperatures accenting the bucolic setting as compelling performances from a broad range of artists drifted back and forth between the Hill Country and Bluebonnet stages.

We arrived just after 4 p.m., in time to catch bluegrass band Della Mae, five women who met in Boston a few years ago and have since “scattered to the wind,” as they put it. Their voices and acoustic instruments blended beautifully on originals and covers of classic tunes such as The Band’s “Evangeline” and the Everly Brothers’ “Little Susie,” setting a nice tone for what was to come.

More indie-oriented roots bands including Tennessee’s Black Lillies and Rhode Island’s Deer Tick bridged the late-afternoon gap to the marquee acts, though a delay of more than 15 minutes to the start of Deer Tick’s set utlimately meant missing them to get in line for dinner. (The grounds feature around a dozen food booths serving up everything from barbecue via the neighboring Salt Lick to vegetarian options to soft-serve ice cream.)

Rodney Crowell’s 6:55 p.m. set seemed early for such an accomplished and beloved artist, but Old Settler’s also staggers the schedule to accommodate festgoers who might not want to stay late. Crowell was in top form on originals both old (“I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”) and new “Sex and Gasoline”), backed by ace guitarist Steuart Smith and a band that also included keyboards and pedal steel.

Bluegrass band the HillBenders perform the Who's "Tommy" at Old Settler's Music Festival on Friday, April 15, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Bluegrass band the HillBenders perform the Who’s “Tommy” at Old Settler’s Music Festival on Friday, April 15, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

We reluctantly pulled ourselves away early to get a prime spot at the Bluebonnet Stage for the weekend’s most intriguing booking, a bluegrass version of the Who’s “Tommy” played by Missouri band the HillBenders. This was the brainchild of the late South by Southwest co-founder Louis Meyers, who’d planned to be here for this triumphant moment before his death last month on the eve of SXSW.

The band dedicated the performance to him and did him proud, repeatedly whipping the crowd up into a frenzy as they brilliantly adapted the rock opera’s instrumentation to banjo, dobro, mandolin, guitar and upright bass. Clearly there were many die-hard Who fans in the audience, as much of the crowd sang, shouted and clapped along when the band enthusiastically called for their participation.

Chasing that performance with Hayes Carll’s headlining slot over at the Hill Country Stage required a sharp shifting of gears, as Carll was playing a comparatively low-key trio set focused on songs from his just-released album “Lovers and Leavers.” But the contrast simply showed that Old Settler’s is about quality music, whatever the presentation may be, as Carll’s new songs may be the best he’s ever written. Midway through, singer Allison Moorer joined him for duets on three songs, including Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s The Way Love Goes,” a tune both Johnny Rodriguez and the late Merle Haggard took to the top of the country charts.

Those looking for a more upbeat glide into the night did just fine staying at the Bluebonnet Stage for the high-energy sounds of the Suffers. The nine-piece Houston outfit took it to the house, with singer Kam Franklin decked out in silvery sparkles and the horn section driving the soul train into territory not often traversed at the more acoustic/Americana-oriented Old Settler’s.

Back at the Hill Country Stage, Southern California indie-folk-rock band Dawes proved a fine choice to close out the night. Some who’d had their fill stayed for a few songs before getting a jump on the departing traffic, while devoted fans crowded up front to hear the group’s melodic tunes that they occasionally pushed into the red with extended jams.

Saturday’s weather forecast might prevent such an idyllic Old Settler’s day from repeating, with the possibility of late-afternoon and evening thunderstorms looming. But the music booked is even better, with the likes of the Jayhawks, Del McCoury Band, Milk Carton Kids, Sarah Jarosz and Jerry Douglas’ Earls of Leicester among the highlights.

The Bluebonnet Stage at Old Settler's Music Festival in Driftwood on Friday, April 15, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock

The Bluebonnet Stage at Old Settler’s Music Festival in Driftwood on Friday, April 15, 2016. Photo by Peter Blackstock


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