Last week, I managed to hurt myself in a manner that would probably be hilarious if (1) it were caught on video and (2) it happened to someone else. This ridiculous injury, along with my bruised ego, almost kept me away from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this year, but the combination of good prescription anti-inflammatories and the muted music heard through my window convinced me I should at least hoof it down the street. I'm glad I did--so thanks Warren Hellman, the Hardly Strictly crew, and Big Pharma for making it all possible!
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 1-3, 2010: There's no question that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an awesome festival on many levels, from the caliber of talent to the pure volume of acts to, well, its proximity to my apartment. And need I repeat that it's all free?
But I gotta say that it also puts the "fuck" in "clusterfuck." After you've worked your way to a reasonable spot that's merely partly obscured by the tall dude in a hat a few paces ahead, only to have the thousandth person cut in front of you, shoehorning themselves into a space you'd previously thought was uninhabitable for all but underage Chinese gymnasts, it's easy to forget the generous spirit and intent that brought us all together.
Or so I thought on Saturday, but by Sunday night, I had changed my tune completely. It helped that the park felt less crowded this year, no doubt a result of the numerous activities crowding the social calendar around the Bay Area this weekend, including the celebratory Giants games on the other side of town and the separate Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire shows in Oakland and Berkeley, respectively. Long story short: I appreciated the breathing room, and I think it made a difference in the overall experience.
This year, I wasn't committed to seeing any particular performer, and I had no desire to augur in, but anyone who knows me should be aware that I can't leave the house without at least a loose plan for the day. In a way, it was the best of both worlds: a leisurely morning, a casual stroll, and music at the end of the journey.
On Saturday, it started with Fountains of Wayne at the Towers of Gold stage, the farthest and sanest outpost of the festival, where it was easy enough to get down to the front about 15 minutes before the band started. I'm pretty sure it was the first time I've seen Fountains of Wayne, unless I've forgotten some radio-sponsored festival appearance back in the '90s (a distinct possibility). The fanboys situated front and center were clearly pleased with the song selection, but even a blank slate like myself could appreciate their way with power chords and a chorus. I don't think they did the big hit "Stacy's Mom," but I can verify that "Radiation Vibe" made it into the set, which was the song I had hoped to hear.
The festival organizers did a great job of staggering the sets on the Towers of Gold and Star stages this year, so you could stroll to the other side and watch the next band, or you could stay in your place and listen to the performance over the PA. On Saturday, I elected to flex the legs and check out the Star Stage for Conor Oberst's performance, but truthfully, I needn't have bothered. I barely saw the stage from my vantage, and I'm not much of a Conor fan anyway. For a handful of songs, Conor was joined by a couple of guests: Jason Boesel, best known as the drummer from Rilo Kiley (though I've seen him drop in at Largo on at least one occasion), and the Felice Brothers, who chipped in with gorgeous harmonies and rich accordion accompaniment.
I probably could've stayed in the western quadrant for Richard Thompson's set, but I opted to catch Gillian Welch and David Rawlings instead. I had few illusions about positioning--there was no way I'd get anywhere close to the Banjo Stage, so I found a spot on the hill. The view was fine, but the the overall impression was less satisfactory.
The argument for being an early freak is that the area closer to the stage is typically devoid of idle chatter and random distractions. Of course, you can't really compare a club gig to a free festival attended by 600,000 people, but it was my misfortune to be surrounded by the chattering class, some of whom claimed to be fans. In all likelihood, they were, but under such conditions, it's not always easy to focus on a performance from half a football field away.
Add to that Gillian and Dave's song selection, which opened with "Long Black Veil," inspired by the cold mist blowing across the park as they took the stage, and mostly stayed at that tempo throughout their set. This is hardly unusual for a Gillian Welch show, but again, it was hard to compete with the random blather and the shenanigans out in the nosebleeds.
The final demerit might've been the technical problems that popped up during the set. Gillian referred to troubles with her guitar, and Dave ran to the side of the stage several times to talk to the sound masters. I sensed the mix dipping and climbing the entire time they were onstage--it probably wasn't ideal for them either.
And finally, I have to share a quote from a woman standing not five feet away from me because I love documenting other people's cluelessness when it comes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: "I've been wanting to see her for a long time. But I don't know who that is playing next to her." Sigh. To be fair, a couple of guys in front of me were talking shop about Dave's guitar, but I'm pretty sure they represent the minority opinion.
That's not to say it was all dirges and dread; "Look at Miss Ohio" elicited what sounded like a huge, loving sigh across the field, and Gillian rolled out a long, affectionate intro for Dave, citing his talents as a painter, a poet, and a fisherman, among other traits, before he took his turn on the mic with "Hear Them All." Dave Grisman and Conor Oberst guested on a few tunes, and for all the music I heard over the weekend, I still can't get "Revelator" out of my brain--that's powerful stuff.
I was torn in two directions by Sunday's schedule, but simple logistics killed any notion of attempting to hit the Rooster Stage, so it was back to Towers of Gold/Star for a fantastic sequence of artists. My festival day opened with Randy Newman, one of the names that jumped out at me when I first saw this year's lineup; it seemed that other people shared my anticipation, judging by our respectful silence while he played his tunes, aside from a couple of songs where we contributed harmonies as Randy requested.
Like many great singer/songwriters, he's mostly known to me through other people's covers, but I recognized several titles, including "Marie" and "Sail Away." He didn't neglect the hits "Short People" and "I Love LA" either, but the most enjoyable portion of his show was probably the banter. In addition to sharing the inspiration for some songs, including one in which he sent up his own dinosaur status, he reeled off a curmudgeonly and score-centric retelling of the Toy Story series that I'll probably never hear anywhere else. (Also: It was hilarious.)
I stayed put while Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes played on the other side of the field, but the sound came through loud and clear over the speakers. Elvis has become a staple of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass after his buoyant festival debut a few years back, and he continues to mix it up at each appearance. He juggled new tracks, old favorites ("Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes"), perennial classics ("Brilliant Mistake"), rarer cuts ("New Amsterdam" mashed up with "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"), and unexpected covers (the Stones' "Happy") in a folksier vein, complete with mandolin and dobro, instead of the all-out electric barrage from his rock shows. He sounded fantastic, and considering it was pretty much equivalent to my viewing of Conor Oberst the day before, I know I made the right decision.
Patti Smith was next on the bill back at Towers of Gold. I have no problem admitting I've always admired her more for what she symbolizes than for her music. She too is another artist whose work I mostly know through covers, but she up-ended every single expectation I had. In a word, she was empowering--a description I almost never use for any musical artist. Maybe it's the third-wave feminism talking, but I've never looked at my favorite female musicians as exceptions to any rule. They've earned their respect not because of their gender; it's always come down to talent.
But watching Patti Smith, I finally understood everything she's achieved and the trails she's blazed for so many artists, male and female. She opened big with "Dancing Barefoot," and around me, I saw grown women weeping and shaking--and I wasn't far behind! Her set was about as varied as you could expect for someone who's known for not just her music but her poetry and her contributions to the American art scene for the last 30-odd years. In the course of her performance, she referenced William Blake, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jim Carroll; assailed the former U.S. presidential administration; read the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi; and urged us to live our lives to the fullest extent possible. Along the way, she worked in her most famous tracks, such as "Because the Night" and "Gloria," as well as another Stones cover in the form of "Play with Fire."
Most striking, she managed to do it all while looking simultaneously happy, fierce, biting, welcoming, and iconic. Heck, she waved joyously at every side of the open stage before stepping up to the mic, and we waved back without hesitation. If she had any issues balancing her personae or her muses, she showed no sign of it. She appeared completely at ease in her own skin, and she seemed determined to share that spirit with us.
It goes without saying that she and her band sounded fantastic too. Led by Lenny Kaye, the musicians anchored Patti's words with the force they deserved. I had expected to admire and appreciate Patti; I had no idea she'd move me to such an extent.
But wait, there's more! Although I held little hope of getting to the Rooster Stage, it was on my way out of the park and back home, so I stopped by to see if I could catch a glimpse of the closer in that quarter, the miraculous Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. My suspicions were correct--it would've been a death wish to try to cantilever yourself into the field proper.
However, there was an alternative, if you didn't mind the threat of poison oak inflaming your ankles or ants crawling over your body. In this case, I didn't, so I took my place with the scores of like-minded attendees who blanketed the woods right outside of the official festival grounds. No, I'm not talking about those lovely venues carved out of the fields and hillsides, such as the Pines Theater or the Greek Theatres in Berkeley or Los Angeles--this was the wilds of Golden Gate Park, conveniently separated from the designated festival limits by a flimsy fence.
Even better, the natural 20-degree grade provided one of the best views I enjoyed all weekend, and the crowds were much more manageable. The only downside was the sound, which hadn't been mixed with us hill people in mind, but that's a small price to pay. As for Sharon, she was out of this world, and dancing was rampant across the forest.
I don't think it's too early to say it: See you next year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass!
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