Released, not coincidentally, just before 2004's festival, this 13-track recap of the 2003 show is an adequate, sometimes exhilarating, always interesting overview of the yearly event. With more than 130 acts playing over three days (September 19-21, 2003), this sampler barely scratches the surface. That is especially frustrating because it is 15 minutes short of the possible CD time. But everything here is well played, beautifully recorded, and indicative of the musical breadth of the lineup. Interestingly, only Steve Earle and Jack Ingram are Texas-bred. But the organizers and album compilers mix things up musically, even though all the acts are guitar-based, American (Steve Winwood lives in the U.S. now), and extol a rootsy sensibility. Anyone attracted by a live cut from one of his or her favorites will probably enjoy the rest. The set does an excellent job of introducing worthy and relatively obscure performers such as rockers Kings of Leon, singer/songwriter Abra Moore, Southern flame-keepers Drive-By Truckers, Martin Sexton, and the emo of Bright Eyes. Only Robert Randolph is joined by guests (North Mississippi Allstars' Luther and Cody Dickinson), and with the amount of cross-pollination at the festival, it's disappointing not to hear other one-off collaborations. The song choices are unusual, since no artists are represented by their most popular material. Drive-By Truckers opt for the sludgy ballad "Outfit," Bright Eyes rushes through the little-known "Spent On Rainy Days" like frontman/singer Conor Oberst needs to get to the rest room, and Jack Ingram's midtempo, simplistic "Keep On Keepin' On" probably won't end up on his greatest-hits album. Only Nickel Creek are unplugged for their "Smoothie Song" bluegrass instrumental, which is strange for a lineup so steeped in Americana. Still, this is a sturdy and consistently enjoyable compilation. With its various genres, styles, and talents, it should expose deserving new names to those who enjoy the PBS show that sponsors the event.
AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz