Hardly Strictly in February? Not exactly, but the spirit was the same, even if we were gathered in memory of Warren Hellman, the benefactor who made it all possible. In case it wasn't immediately apparent, this was no funeral march, starting with the name of the festival itself. Instead, San Francisco hosted the Warren Hellman Public Celebration, with many of the artists who've saved the dates in October for several years over.
Warren Hellman Public Celebration, Great Highway, February 19, 2012: I apologize for all the times I've prattled endlessly about the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and my nearly ringside seat to the festivities -- but you'd do it too if you had the chance. Thus, when Warren Hellman passed away last year, it was one of the few celebrity (?) deaths that affected me, simply because his generosity truly touched the city, the region, and beyond every year. Clearly, he led a fine, full life, and through his efforts, he gave each of us a taste of it.
If you've been to Hardly Strictly, the logistics of this celebration looked somewhat familiar. The Banjo and Arrow Stages were set at opposite end of the closed-off segment of the Great Highway, with just enough distance in between that you could sort of hear the tunes if you were camped out on one side (as is my wont). To the west was Ocean Beach and the great Pacific, and from where I eventually rolled out my blanket, you could view the Cliff House and the edge of Marin. Overall, it was a gorgeous, nearly cloudless day, though we could've used a couple more ticks on the thermometer (obligatory Californian weather whine concluded).
I can't tell you what happened on the Arrow Stage because I settled in near the Banjo Stage soundboard for Gillian Welch's set and, predictably, didn't move, though it was a mellow enough day that people seemed to wander off without worry. The guy next to me came back with reports of Steve Earle's set, but I had to make do with glimpses of Steve taking in several acts at the Banjo Stage. It's a good thing his beard is so recognizable, even from a distance!
John Doe was the first musical voice ringing out from the Banjo Stage for the day, accompanied by Cindy Wasserman. I've seen John in several musical outfits over the years, including as a solo artist and with a full band. They didn't get a whole lot of time onstage, but I recall they did "The Golden State," as well as one X song that escapes my memory.
Dry Branch Fire Squad followed, with charming tales of meeting Alan Lomax, as well as a reference to T.S. Eliot -- a surprising choice for self-proclaimed rednecks. Buddy Miller was next in line, with the expected appearance from Emmylou Harris for a Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton song. Finally, it was time for Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, bedecked in coordinated bling, as they called it. I loved the sparkles, and I hope they break it out on less momentous occasions.
I can't say I've really enjoyed any Gillian/Dave set I've seen at Hardly Strictly -- not because of the performers, but due to the circumstances. Also, it's hard for any gig to compare, even at smaller spaces, after the Largo shows. I was thankful to be less than a football field away, to tell you the truth. Despite these caveats, by the end of their set, I basked in an overwhelming certainty: I love these two.
They opened with a banjo song, they said, in tribute to the clawhammer player Warren Hellman, and it turned out to be my oft-cited favorite track "Hard Times." If I recall correctly, they did three more songs from the new record, including "Six White Horses" accompanied by Gillian's clogging. The relatively short set couldn't encompass all the favorites, and I get the feeling they narrowed the selection with Warren in mind, so some of my potential picks were inevitably left out. Of course "Miss Ohio" was in the mix, and just as surely, Emmylou joined them for "Go to Sleep Little Baby." Less of a certainty, we got a couple of Revelator tunes. Heavenly!
They transported me -- and a large segment of the crowd, it appeared -- from their opening stance, but "I'll Fly Away" sealed the deal, for so many reasons. The song itself was perfectly suited to the festivities, and it allowed us to join in at the top of our lungs. I know sing-alongs aren't for everyone, but they almost always work for me, especially when you're among beloved performers. Dave entreated us to extend the choruses for a few more rounds. I probably could've sung the exact same words for another hour.
We stuck around for Old Crow Medicine Show, a band I've never seen as a whole, though I've caught a few of their personnel in other settings. The standout song was their cover of Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," and I'm pretty sure you can find clips of it on the Internet right now. I can't attempt to tell you why some musicians appeal to me, while their brethren, not far removed, don't ring the same bells. For whatever reason, Old Crow falls into the latter category, though approximately 15,000 at Ocean Beach that day would tell you the opposite.
And then we left, without catching Emmylou's set. I always say my seat for Emmylou at Hardly Strictly in 2007 can't be beat, so I won't bother trying to best it. Though part of me knew this memorial would be different, I ultimately couldn't stick around. I have all the faith in the world that she didn't disappoint the remaining concertgoers, and who knows? Maybe I'll give it another try in October.
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