Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 5 to 7, 2012: Much like in 2010, the Bay Area had something for everyone this weekend. A sampling of activities include Fleet Week, America's Cup races, the Giants games, a 49ers game, and mega concerts in Oakland. Whew! This may have helped keep the numbers down at Hardly Strictly; I noticed less of a crunch than in previous years. Alternately, maybe no one wants to see the same performers as me.
As for those artists, few jumped out at me as in years before, but there's something for nearly everyone, and I was able to whittle down my list to a number of essential performers. Top of the list was Justin Townes Earle; I love his latest record, and I couldn't possibly pass up this opportunity.
After a late, lazy morning (sorry Sara Watkins), I ambled down to the Towers of Gold Stage in the early afternoon. You gotta love the western border of Hardly Strictly around that hour. With no trouble at all, I was able to make my way close to the front for a great view. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera that day, so you'll have to take my word on my primo placement.
As Justin took the stage, it occurred to me that he bears a resemblance to Rufus Wainwright. They're both tall and lanky, with a bohemian air. They've prevailed over checkered histories, and of course, there's the whole music progeny thing. Maybe it's a country mouse/city mouse thing? Maybe I should save these thoughts for my anonymous Tumblr?
|From easily fooled|
Justin was accompanied by the same band that joined him at the Great American Music Hall earlier this year, and their chops came through as before. Back then, I didn't realize how big an asset Paul Niehaus was on guitar, though I could hear it in his contributions. Vince Ilagan and John Radford resumed their duties on stand-up bass and drums, respectively.
Obviously, festival sets are shorter than stand-alone gigs, but I think Justin got almost an hour of stage time, though he was slated for 50 minutes. Otherwise, he stuck with a similar format of frequent banter, a short solo set, and the full band treatment. If my memory is correct, we got similar but paraphrased versions of the stories behind "Maria" and "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now." Hell, if I had gone through the same breakup and/or written as a great a song, I'd work that angle until they cut off my mic. They don't call that show "Storytellers" for nothing.
It's hard to imagine Justin at a loss for words when it comes to his songs, and we may have seen the best example of this during a potentially awkward moment. Though he easily shared stories about ex-girlfriends, he also introduced some uncertainty to the narratives, reminding us the subject was often a composite character. He couldn't do the same with "Am I That Lonely Tonight," which opens with the line, "I hear my father on the radio" -- especially with the man in question watching from the side of the stage. Apart from a subtle reference to the circumstances at the beginning of the song, Justin said no more on the topic. Then again, everything you need to know is in the lyrics.
With his extra (?) time, Justin was able to squeeze in the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait." That's a festival song if I've ever heard one.
My only real encounter with impenetrable mobs this weekend followed Justin's set, when I nursed the idea of checking out the Lumineers at the Rooster Stage. Denied! The path to the Rooster Stage from JFK Drive was truly a frothing sea of humanity. I should've known -- the always fortress-like stage plus the bustling food stands plus the runoff from the even larger Banjo Stage plus a band with an actual radio hit meant I didn't have a prayer in the world of seeing a centimeter of the stage. After failing to make any forward progress for a few minutes, I moved on.
Which brought me to the Porch Stage on the eastern side of the festival, well in advance of Robyn Hitchock's set. I've never actually seen the Porch Stage before, though it's the closest to my apartment. Little did I know how accessible and mellow it was! Even more so than Towers of Gold!
I accidentally continued my Earle family stalking with Allison Moorer's performance, where she was joined by husband Steve Earle for a couple of tracks. Justin could be seen wandering around too. Go figure!
But I was really there for Robyn Hitchcock, who didn't disappoint in a pink and purple shirt, as well as his trademark mop of white hair. Robyn's non sequiturs could easily power a fake or real Twitter account from here until our cosmic overlords reclaim this poor planet, so I won't try to cover them here -- except to note that he opened with a fantastic and affectionate comment about San Francisco "celebrating the 52nd year of the 1960s." To his credit, Robyn didn't seem to mind the Blue Angels flying overhead, dismissing them with a remark about (paraphrased) the impermanence of everything, so we should just enjoy what we have.
I think Robyn did a couple of tracks by himself before he brought up his special guest. I'm not even sure Robyn formally introduced him, but he was hardly a stranger to the crowd -- or to me, despite the well-meaning hippie's inquiries as to whether I recognized him. (He had also asked me between sets if I was familiar with Nick Drake, bless his heart.) The mystery man: John Paul Jones, frequent Largo guest, though I didn't bother explaining that to the new acquaintance. Oh right, he's kind of known for that other band too. My guess is that John Paul Jones took part in Sara Watkins' set -- which, as mentioned above, I had missed.
This may be the first time I've seen Robyn and John Paul Jones (does anyone refer to him with less than three names?) play together in any form, but I'm too lazy to look over my old posts to make sure. Needless to say, I fully realized the magnitude of this collaboration, as I have with every other John Paul Jones appearance I've witnessed.
John Paul Jones remained with Robyn for the rest of his set, taking on a bunch of Robyn's classics. I never in my life would've guessed I'd hear "Balloon Man" with a mandolin solo, but they carried it off beautifully. They also went in on "Tangled Up in Blue," Robyn's wife's favorite Dylan song.
The best moment of their set may have been "Saturday Groovers." To start, Robyn prefaced the tune with a tale of living next door to John Paul Jones, where they shared a single lightbulb; while one had illumination, the other was bathed in rain. This led to an explanation of the real-life groovers and their place in British cultural history -- hey, it sounded legit enough to me. The song itself was upbeat and fun, but the most endearing touch may have been John Paul Jones' impromptu harmonies at the end. They totally need to take this act on the road.
On Sunday, Son Volt kicked off the show. This might be the first time I've officially seen Son Volt live, though I've caught a couple of Jay Farrar appearances. Once again, it was a breeze to get to the front of the stage, where a steady sampling of Farrar faithful held court, including one fellow who air-drummed along to every track.
The first half of Son Volt's set was, in a word, problematic. Technical difficulties silenced the lead guitar for a couple of songs, and overall, the pacing was slow. The set picked up, both in terms of pace and spirit, with a block of Trace tunes right around the middle. Not only were the fans singing and jumping around, the energy carried over into the remainder of their segment. I think Son Volt closed out with at least one song from Jay Farrar's Jack Kerouac project with Ben Gibbard. Sorry, finer details escape me.
I can say one more thing about Son Volt: If you're a fan of Jay's voice, you'll be pleased to hear that familiar lilt going strong. It's still a fantastic instrument all on its own.
The Rooster Stage was slightly more open for Nick Lowe, but I went to my usual perch on the side of the hill. Perhaps some day my feet will touch the ground of that natural amphitheater -- one can dream. Not that the hillside is virgin land either; the gathered fans looked not unlike a post-apocalyptic enclave of survivors, though maybe the Whole Foods bags and wine bottles gave it away.
Nick was his usual cool, regal self, playing a mix of old and new, but always at his own pace. His playlist included "Battlefield," once covered by Diana Ross, though he downplayed its prominence in her career. "House for Sale" was welcomed warmly also, and he landed on a couple of classics: "Cruel to Be Kind" and (by request) "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)." The man may be the epitome of timelessness.
With that, my Hardly Strictly Bluegrass experience drew to a close for 2012. There's no use in playing coy anymore -- see you next year.
» i wanna reach that glory land
» watch the waves and move the fader
» we both pretend we don't know why
» don't get around much anymore
» between two worlds