Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 3-4, 2009
For my first couple of stints at the festival, I went with a plan, and it served me well, though I have a friend's fearless move to thank for my best positioning ever at the Banjo Stage. I'm never getting that close for the closing festivities ever again! With that concession fully banked, I flew under the radar last year, slipping in and out of the festival and catching the handful of acts that mattered to me. I had intended to do the same this year, but my twitchy nature won out, forcing a compromise. In a nutshell, Saturday, we wandered. Sunday, we camped.
Initially, I thought maybe the early acts of the day would be my favorites by default, just because the crowds had not yet convened. We wandered to the Star Stage in time to catch Jon Langford, Sally Timms, and the Sadies, filling in for Roger Knox, whose entry visa was denied, on Saturday, but Okkervil River delivered the true debut. Okkervil River largely reprised the set they played when opening for Wilco back in June, and much as they did then, they won over a good chunk of the audience with their impassioned, lively display. From the middle of the field, it was great to see the hands in the air and to hear Will Sheff work it the crowd as hard as he did earlier this summer.
In a similar vein, Elvis Perkins in Dearland threw the doors wide open on Sunday morning with a fun, brisk set. I've missed Elvis (who bore a striking resemblance to Abbey Road-era George Harrison) and crew more often than I've seen them, and that includes their last appearance in San Francisco. The mix-up isn't really worth explaining, except to say it ranks high among my ditz moments.
The band has written and recorded its fair share of moody, introspective numbers, but they opted for a mostly upbeat set for the festival, with their drummer strapping on the bass drum and moving to the front of the stage for several titles. For me, the highlight of their revue was a three-song stint featuring tunes from their forthcoming EP, out October 20.
The first selection was a spiritual called "Weeping Mary," but it was the transition to the second--whose title wasn't offered--that caught me by surprise. It was a full-on Eddie Cochran-style rave-up, and they followed up with a bluesy, soulful piece. That's going to be a great EP, I hazard. They closed with "Doomsday," thus killing my hope of hearing "Ash Wednesday," but their choice was definitely more appropriate for the hour and the setting. Note to self: Don't miss them again.
I've navigated some extreme measures to see my favorite performers, whether at a club, a festival, or elsewhere; by that barometer, I didn't do anything out of character to see my headliners at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. In fact, you could say I dialed it back, for a change. But after Saturday's middling effort, I figured I'd need to invest a little more energy if I wanted to catch either Neko Case or Aimee Mann the way I wanted to see them. Long story short: Everything worked out.
As much as I appreciate the festival's expansion into different genres, I still wonder how certain groups will go over with the masses, and prior to Aimee's set, I was apprehensive over the outcome. Aimee is nowhere close to bluegrass in any regard, and though she's hit the festival circuit more in the last few years, I can't wrap my head around the idea of her playing to anything other than mannered, courteous indoor audiences--even though I've seen Aimee take on similar circumstances before.
I repeat: Everything worked out (despite the woman behind me who asked me to sit down because I wasn't in the standing section--of a field?! for a free show!?). A doting group gathered at the front of the stage for Aimee's set, and as always, the songs from Magnolia drew the biggest response. Aimee even got to throw out the fun fact of her losing an Oscar to Phil Collins' "monkey love song." In the witty repartee department, she also shared that her forehead felt like a big solar panel as they played directly into the the sun.
My guess is that much of the audience hadn't seen Aimee before, but
I had no doubt that Neko Case, however, would have any problems with the crowd. For starters, she was hardly a stranger, having played a supporting role at the festival a couple of years ago. And though Neko's sound is less definable these days, it's closer to the festival's namesake genre than most of the acts I saw on Sunday.
Neko's band, including Jon Rauhouse, remained intact, and Kelly Hogan stood by her side. (Also of note: The musicians gathered on the side of the stage to watch them, including Billy Bragg, Will Sheff, and Scott McCaughey.) Neko and Kelly, as always, are so entertaining that I find it hard to believe anyone can resist their charms. The women repeatedly lauded the organizers for allowing dogs into the festival, and other topics of conversation included Neko's ill-fitting jeans and her self-proclaimed lack of an ass. Neko's pipes were as staggering as ever, but at other moments, she chose to speak in--for lack of a better word--a high-pitched squawk. I hesitate to guess at what inspired that tone, but believe it or not, I'd heard a lot of weirder things at the festival.
Neko and company bounded all over her catalog, from the country-ish early works to the rich, ornate style she prefers these days. In between, she and Kelly offered generous shout-outs to the Sadies and worked up two of the song they'd co-written. In a strange twist, Marianne Faithfull had sang "Hold On Hold On" at the stage immediately to the back of the setup just prior to Neko's set, but that didn't stop Neko from running with it herself. They closed with a cover of the Shangri-Las' "The Train from Kansas City," such a perfect selection that you wonder how we'd never heard it before.
Those are the sets I feel most comfortable blogging, but I caught or attempted to catch several more artists over the course of the weekend, with varying degrees of success, comfort, and interest--not to mention the acts I didn't bother approaching, for whatever reason (the crowds, the cold, the lack of willpower). However, I managed to squeeze in among the throngs to watch most of Gillian Welch's set at the overattended squall known as the Banjo Stage.
The conditions would probably qualify as hellish were it not for Gillian and David, but they rewarded the hordes with guest appearances by Emmylou Harris and Old Crow Medicine Show. Emmylou and "Go to Sleep Little Baby" were not a surprise, but I gasped when all the above parties assembled for "The Weight." I'm not going to hear anything approaching those harmonies for a long time to come.
News reports peg attendance at this year's festival at 750,000--almost the population of San Francisco itself--and I think I smooshed into every single one of them at one point or another during the weekend. Threatening equal parts intrigue and insanity, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass tempts me as few other festivals do. I'll have to wait and see what 2010 brings, but I'll keep October open.
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