Not so long ago, if you wanted to watch me squirm, all you had to do was ask me one simple question: If Wilco/Jeff Tweedy and Jon Brion were playing the same night--and all other factors being equal--which would I go see? I still think it's an apples-and-oranges comparison, but I actually have an answer now.
Jeff Tweedy, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 5, 2007: Festivals are great in concept, allowing you to sample a smorgasbord of artists in one fell swoop. I used to travel to England to indulge in this summer tradition, but as my tastes have grown more, errrr, specific over the years, the mix-and-match nature of most festivals has become less attractive to me. Of course, there's always an exception, and if a free festival practically in my backyard with Jeff Tweedy as the headliner can't get me out the door, I don't know what can.
I have to hand it to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass folks; they don't phone it in. This year, the stage had already been built and the fields prepared by the time we got to the park at a fairly early hour of the morning. All we had to do was walk right down to the sweet spot and spread out the blankets to mark our space, which gave us plenty of room to welcome Dr. Judy and her family when they arrived. Sharing the expanse were Trish, Sinead, Brianne, Andrew, and me--a far cry from last year, when I navigated Elvis mostly by myself.
Jeff was, in fact, the first performer we saw that day, when he emerged for a short soundcheck. Before he returned for his headlining slot, however, we took in the day's other artists. Augie March showed that they were capable of covering a good selection of musical styles, though it seemed like they left almost as soon as they began. Buddy Miller was an early crowd favorite, and he performed a cover of "Rock, Salt, and Nails," which I had no idea was in his repertoire until Brianne mentioned it earlier that day. T Bone Burnett and friends had several technical problems, but Neko Case sounded as amazing as ever. She did only three songs on her own before John Mellencamp joined them, at which point she was relegated to backup duties. Still, it was a kick to hear her singing harmony on "Pink Houses"--a song I never thought I'd hear live and in person, even when it was an MTV staple.
T Bone's set went a bit long, which made us wonder how Jeff would fare. Our concerns, as it turned out, were unfounded, as he was called back for an encore and went a good half hour past the supposed 7 p.m. curfew, delivering a truly satisfying selection of tunes. Early on, he attempted to downplay expectations by informing the crowd that there wouldn't be much bluegrass in his set. No worries there, especially when he's playing up some of the folksier angles, such as songs by Woodie Guthrie and Uncle Tupelo, as well as the twangier end of Wilco's spectrum.
I admit that I have a bias toward the older songs, such as "New Madrid," which I will never refuse an opportunity to hear. But aside from sentimental favorites, the two titles that certifiably lit up the evening were "Someone Else's Song," sung in that high register I love (see "Gun"), and "Summerteeth," to which we contributed some excellent backing vocals, if I do say so myself. But don't take my word for it--the artist chimed in with his agreement, and I may have spied some nearby faces in the audience smiling back at us when they realized what we were doing. No shushing here!
It was kind of weird seeing Jeff--the only solo performer of the day--all by himself on such a big stage. Fortunately, the Blue Angels had ceased their exercises long before his set started, so at least there was no overhead buzzing to distract us. Overall, he handled the daunting stretch of bodies well, joking with the audience and frequently looking toward his family, who were watching from the side of the stage. I just pray that he didn't resurrect "cock" with his brief foray back into that word's terminology. On the other hand, I can confidently say that "loves me some" and "true dat" will continue to live on for some time, despite his best efforts.
As for the rest of the festival, Brianne and I missed Saturday (check back later to find out why), but we returned Sunday, when Andrew had secured our amazing spot, thanks to his dogged determination, his convenient jetlag, and his sheer cult of personality, judging by all the new friends he had made while we were gone. Sunday was, for me, my first ever taste of bluegrass at this festival, and though it'll never be my music of choice, I can't tell you how far I've come aesthetically to be able to listen without prejudice.
Earl Scruggs and his six-piece band showed off the fullness of these supposedly simple tunes, while Doc Watson was charm and talent personified, playing alongside David Holt, as well as his grandson Richard Watson. Finally, there was the transcendent Emmylou Harris; I don't know if it was the setting, the company, or the songs themselves, but I found myself getting a little choked up when those multipart harmonies kicked in. When David Rawlings showed up to watch her set from the photographer's pit (and almost got kicked out by a well-meaning but uninformed security person because he wasn't wearing his badge!), an entirely different emotion, however, took over. Yowza!
See you next year!
» now I try to be amused