Rocktober has arrived, and in San Francisco, that means Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is in session. This marks the 11th year of the festival, and by those standards, I'm a relative newcomer, but I can't imagine my year without this grand gathering. Also, it gives me a reason to never move out of the Richmond District.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, September 30 to October 23, 2011: Certainly, there's more than one way to navigate a free, sprawling music festival that's intended to mix genres, audiences, and generations, but I do it the only way I know how: by trying to impose some order on the vast list of activities and expanse of land. This year, it meant not really sleeping Friday night and hopping on a 7 am flight so that I could get home, pull myself together, and wander down to Golden Gate Park by noon.
From there, the day became a little easier, and I managed to flit between stages for a number of bands. For me, Robyn Hitchcock kicked off the festival at the Rooster Stage. Once again, I didn't make it to the field proper; the hillside was just fine, and this time, the sound was great -- or maybe it was the simple acoustic setup.
Robyn started out by himself with "Cynthia Mask", but he was first joined by Abigail Washburn, then by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The quartet carried off a fine selection of Robyn's back catalog, from his work with the Egyptians ("Queen Elvis," "Balloon Man") to the Venus 3 ("Ole Tarantula"). Robyn even worked up the San Francisco angle with a nod to Magnum Force in "(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs" and with the concluding Grateful Dead cover ("Candyman"). Little did I know it wouldn't be the last of Robyn over the weekend.
Following Robyn's set, I headed out to catch another British icon: Hugh Laurie. Look, I don't typically favor actor/musicians, but I'm not automatically opposed to them either, and no, I'm not trying to cover my ass in case certain thespians decide to hit the road. Heck, I actually like She & Him.
But about Hugh Laurie -- first of all, the crowd was huge for the Towers of Gold stage, usually one of the less populated areas of the park. I heard more than one person yelling out for Dr. House (I've never watched the show myself), and at least one woman admitted she had no idea he was British until that very moment. This is all superfluous, though. Hugh Laurie's performance was surprisingly good. A fellow next to me likened Hugh's first number to Cab Calloway, and his voice was quite expressive. His backing band was solid, and overall, they did a great job.
I ran out for a little bit but returned in time to hear snippets of the Kris Kristofferson/Merle Haggard set before finding an inadequate spot for Broken Social Scene. I haven't cooled on the band since their last date in San Francisco, but as this was my casual day and I had a ticket for their show at the Fillmore the same evening, I didn't want to squeeze my way up front. Instead, I found a spot in the midfield. My mistake -- the chatter and the traffic were distracting, though I guess you have to expect that of a free event.
Broken Social Scene put together a standard festival set, heavy with selections from the most recent record. However, they still managed to surprise me with the inclusion of several seminal You Forgot It in People tracks, including "Shampoo Suicide." I thought for sure I'd never get to hear this one live again and, more important for my blog, to publicly air my pretentious rock critic theory: Come on, people, it's totally a cross between Fleetwood Mac's "Gypsy" and Malcolm McLaren's "Madame Butterfly" -- and that's high praise!
After Broken Social Scene, I took a swing through the rest of the park. Along the way, I heard one song in Gillian Welch's set, but fortunately, it was my favorite track from the new record, "Hard Times." I eventually ended up back at the Rooster Stage overlook for a portion of the Punch Brothers, who also covered a song from the latest Gillian Welch album. In the past, I've heard them do "Wayside/Back in Time," but they've added "Down Along the Dixie Line" to their repertoire, sped up about five-fold. The Punch Brothers may have been the only bluegrass artists I saw during this entire bluegrass-leaning festival, and in case I had any doubts about the genre's popularity, the dancing crowds inside the rooster pen dispelled all such thoughts.
That was Saturday, but Sunday was another story, with one goal: Elbow! With Julie's early foothold, we were able to make steady progress through Dr. John and Devotchka until we were at the front for the headliners, and thanks to the convenient PA setup, we heard Emmylou Harris join Buddy Miller for his set, as well as Bob Mould's show on the abutting stage. I love it when a plan comes together.
According to my records, Elbow hasn't toured here in three years. They do well enough in England, but they're not exactly superstars, and obviously, their profile is lower in the United States. And let's not even raise the question of how they were booked for an ostensibly bluegrass festival. I'm willing to leave that stone unturned, but I was suspicious of the crowd that gathered at the rail for Elbow's set. However, through the simple act of reaching out and communicating, it turns out they were committed fans, even if -- ahem! -- many of them had never caught the band live before. (Bonus: They were really nice people too.) Hey, I feel like I haven't really seen a band until their fifth appearance anyway, so we were practically on the same level.
Elbow had an hour to cast their spell, but the magic took hold within seconds. I've said it before: Guy Garvey is charm incarnate, and his very presence immediately puts you at ease. He works the crowd like a champ, pointing and waving at far corners of the field, making connections with far-flung audience members. I wouldn't presume that the San Francisco audience is the first to receive such attention, but it still feels sincere. As usual, we were eating out of their hand, as well as lending our voices, whistles, and handclaps of support. According to Guy, the feelings were mutual, as he heaped praise on our city and the festival itself toward the end of their slot.
Elbow crafts dense, complex, and sprawling songs, and I wondered how much actual music we'd get to hear between Guy's lilting banter. Clearly, there was no way to represent their entire discography in this limited set, and as it turned out they favored the last couple of records. I don't think we heard a single early track, which is a small loss, but "Lippy Kids" managed to push a bunch of emotional buttons in me. Also, I have to admit The Seldom Seen Kid deserves as much attention as you can spare. For my favorite artists such as Elbow, more is always better, but Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will tide me over until the next headlining tour.
» throw those curtains wide
» talking trash under your breath
» don't get around much anymore