Sunday, October 13, 2013

sometimes i dream that i have found a place

Welcome to Rocktober, in which I'll be nominally participating. As usual, I'll kick off with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, now in its 13th edition at Golden Gate Park.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 4 to 6, 2013: Most of my friends -- some of whom live about as close to the park as I do -- don't bother with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass anymore. I get it: The crowds can be stifling, and the lineup may or may not draw you in. And in a day and age where people pay a premium just to be able to use nicer bathrooms at festivals, a free offering may not be as enticing as it sounds. But whether due to my cheapness, the love of live music that still occasionally sparks in me, or my general reluctance to leave the neighborhood, I make my way back year after year.

The aforementioned friends had a good point this year. Due to a combination of glorious weather (a sunny and bright 80 degrees in the Richmond District) and lack of competing activities (no Giants games or, thanks to the GOP shutdown, Fleet Week activities), I knew it was going to be packed in the park. Add to that a huge amount of scheduling conflicts and the number of great acts I had no chance of seeing, and I could almost bring myself to ignore the fest -- almost. As it turned out, the festival drew record crowds, but on the whole, I managed to steer clear of the worst of the traffic jams.

Truth be told, I wasn't extraordinarily moved by this year's lineup, but as always, I can find a handful of acts that are worth checking out. I had to skip Friday again, but on Saturday, the Porch Stage hosted the majority of the musicians I wanted to see.

I started off with Paul Kelly, the veteran Australian singer/songwriter who's often cited by some of my favorite artists. I liked "Before Too Long" all those years ago, but haven't followed his career at all. So thank you, HSBG tastemakers, for bringing him to the festival. I'm not sure what I can add to the adulation and respect he's received over the years except to say it's all true -- his warm vocals, pretty melodies, and songwriting craft are abundantly appealing. He finished his set with an a cappella interpretation of Psalm 23. If he hadn't prefaced the song, this non-Christian likely wouldn't have known where it came from. Honestly, I probably would've thought it was another traditional title in a weekend rife with traditional titles. Little would I have realized how long that tradition dated back!

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

With time to kill between sets, I wandered all the way down to the Star and Towers of Gold stages, just to get an idea of the vibe around the grounds. Over at the Star Stage, I caught the end of what was officially billed as Jon Langford & Skull Orchard Acoustic/Freakons -- in essence, the Mekons plus Freakwater plus a bunch of other musicians I can't name. They closed their set with the oldie "Working in a Coal Mine," which was a ton of fun and enjoyed a clever twist, thanks to Jon Langford's Welsh heritage. I peeked over at Towers of Gold to hear the beginning of Betty LaVette's show, but had to hightail it back to the Porch Stage.

One of the best aspects of the Porch Stage is that it's the most relaxed of all the stages. Honestly, the biggest draws aren't scheduled here, which might be an insult if you're a performer, but it's a boon when you're a fan. I was able to find a decent spot for a set by Mike Scott and Steve Wickham of the Waterboys. I won't attempt to overstate my interest in the Waterboys. In fact, I have a tendency of loving the offshoot bands that come from those seminal groups (World Party, in this case), but given the Waterboys' contributions and lack of touring in the United States, catching their set became a priority.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

Again, I won't try to betray much expertise, except to say they didn't do "The Whole of the Moon" -- perhaps they saved it for the paying show -- but overall, it was a great set. For someone like myself who's not enmeshed in the traditions of folk, bluegrass, gospel, and what have you (honestly, after reading interviews with musicians for almost 30 years of my life, I'm not sure I need to read about influences and sources any longer), it was a blast to hear how much of the Waterboys' Celtic roots coincided with U.S. traditional music.

For the last song of their set, Mike Scott offered a short primer on what makes a jig before breaking out into their final selection: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," at a faster clip than I'm used to. He dedicated it to Warren Hellman, and I have a feeling it wasn't the only performance of the song over the span of the weekend.

One more note about Mike Scott: He was easily the most rock 'n' roll performer I saw in the couple of days. His style hasn't changed much since the Waterboys' breakthrough, and with his thin gold scarf and short manner, you could still see the swagger about him. In fact, though he was wearing a blazer in the heat, I'm not sure I saw him sweat at all. Steve Wickham's fiddle, too, added a seriously epic note on several tunes.

Here's one thing about these traditional music festivals: You hear a lot of pretty voices. For example, the in-betweeners at the Porch Stage made for good listening, even if I didn't become an instant fan. Joy Kills Sorrow, taking the slot between the Waterboys and Martha Wainwright, covered a Postal Service song too, for new fans looking to connect to their tunes.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013I debated sticking around for Martha Wainwright's set and ultimately decided to stay -- and I'm glad I did. I haven't caught Martha in concert since the time she opened for Wilco in London, but she was a staple at early Rufus Wainwright shows, of which I was a huge fan. Alas, those gigs predate this blog, so you'll have to take my word for it. I've always loved Martha's voice, however, and I was curious to hear what she'd done over the years.

First of all, I had no idea she was a mom now, complete with exactly one song written about her child. Otherwise, her personality seemed to be intact. For example, she referenced her entire musical family (parents, brother, cousin) all over the place, and her lyrics retained that darker edge she's known for. She didn't grant the request for "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole," but she graced us with a song that was inspired by imagining she and her friends had died in a car trip across Canada in winter.

Regarding her father, she revealed that she hadn't heeded his advice about San Francisco in October; regarding her brother, she told us about the new record he's working on with Mark Ronson and how she hates how good it sounds; and regarding her mother, she closed with a song she wrote shortly before she died. "Proserpina," Martha explained, is about the legend of Persephone, but Martha suspects it's really about the late, great Kate McGarrigle herself. Amen.

For Sunday, I reverted to my usual ways and simply settled down at the Star Stage nice and early. There was no way I was going to miss Justin Townes Earle, a festival staple and a recent favorite for me. But before he took the stage, Dry Branch Fire Squad kicked off the proceedings with the "strictly bluegrass" portion of my weekend. I'd seen them previously at the Warren Hellman tribute, and they remain as charming as ever. This time out, we got a pretty good story about Charlton Heston and his commentary on their "native garb." (I really hope I didn't mess up that phrasing.)

Local band Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers followed, with a horn section and special guest Boz Scaggs on a handful of tracks. They were all major crowd favorites, and the audience was on its feet for much of the set. I think they did at least one Boz Scaggs song, but as I've said many times in this blog, '70s rock is one of my weak spots.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

Finally, it was time for Justin Townes Earle! Overall, he looked and sounded good, showing off a lighter, looser mood than I recall from previous shows. He opened with -- and promptly forgot the words to -- "Baby's Got a Bad Idea." His set wasn't nearly long enough for my liking, but he tried out a bunch of new songs that he says he'll start recording soon because they took him so damn long to write. In my recollection, the new songs share a lot of the smoky, moody makeup of the last record, which is great news to me.

In between songs, he joked about his usual demons: drinking and his parents. For example, he shared that he was hung over the first time he played Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, when his set was scheduled for 11 am. At another point, he got a laugh when he told us he and a friend had a bet on whether either could write a record without mommy or daddy issues. You'll have to decide for yourself his intentions when he remarked that he messed them up as much as they did to him and how everyone thought cocaine was a vegetable in the '80s. At the Star Stage on this day, it was pretty funny.

I'll highlight three more songs from his set. On a new track (something about "waiting" or "worried"? definitely had a "w" in it), he claimed he rearranged a verse and a half, not that we'd know it. "Am I That Lonely Tonight" was as hypnotic as you can imagine, particularly in contrast to the minor lapses during the rest of the show. I also finally figured out one of the reasons why that song burrows into my brain every time -- the lines starting with "Sometimes I wish that I could" place me right into Elvis Costello's "Alison," only of course in a totally different tune and treatment.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

Finally, Justin and the band closed with "Can't Hardly Wait," as he's known to do. I can't guess at how many people in the audience recognized it, but hey, I can't name the Boz Scaggs hit -- so let's call it even?

I made one final stop before going home, finding a spot at the side of the Rooster Stage for the Kate McGarrigle tribute. The idea of staging this get-together at Hardly Strictly is kind of a no-brainer, considering the overlap between audiences; it certainly helps when Hardly Strictly figurehead Emmylou Harris is part of the festivities. Martha and Sloan Wainwright drove the tribute, in which they were joined by Loudon Wainwright, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and Maria Muldaur. I didn't see all of the individual performances, as I caught only the last 20 minutes or so of the gathering, but at the very end, they came together for "Heart Like a Wheel," written by Anna McGarrigle, who -- as Martha noted -- was such a huge part of Kate's life.

Thus ends another year at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. For all my hemming and hawing, you know I'll be back again.

See also:
» we both pretend we don't know why
» my starter won't start
» i wanna reach that glory land

Friday, October 04, 2013

there is light but there's a tunnel to crawl through

This concert report was supposed to have been accompanied by a write-up of Frightened Rabbit's gig in Sacramento. Alas, that didn't work out, and my quest to see this hard-working and well-traveled band in a tertiary market has been foiled again. Lucky for me they're drawn back to San Francisco time and time again, on this occasion landing at the Warfield.

Frightened Rabbit, the Warfield, September 30, 2013: I was a borderline basket case after Frightened Rabbit's last show in town. I didn't want to hear a note from any other band, I was YouTubing their performances like a maniac, and the search for live material took up a significant segment of my day. I may have also attempted (oh god) to mimic their accents when singing certain songs. I was, in essence, my 12-year-old self, if the same technology had been available when I was growing up.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

My ardor cooled slightly in the intervening six months, probably for the better; those levels aren't sustainable. In addition, it was an emotional weekend, with the end of the Giants' baseball season and of Breaking Bad descending on the same day. As a matter of fact, I almost forgot my ticket at home on the morning of the gig, which goes to show you where my mind had wandered. The awesome thing about music, though, is that it takes a mere riff to snap your thoughts back in place, and a few days on from the concert, I've returned to that semi-weepy state at the sweep of "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms" or "Swim Until You Can't See Land" -- neither of which were even played at the show.

The band opened with "Holy," as they did back in March, but in the bigger venue, the effect wasn't quite as foreboding, as the smoke and fog dissipated into the high ceilings. One song in, and Scott was already talking to us about his pre-show nap and its accompanying effect, comparing himself to a newborn baby pulled out of the darkness and emerging as the center of attention. Er, look for a track titled "Siesta Rebirth" on the next Frightened Rabbit album?

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

In fact, Scott was in a talkative mood tonight. Also early in the show, he shared a story about some assholes in Calgary who requested "The Twist" all night because the song was playing when they crashed their boat. I'll give you a second to suppress the wave of nausea surely washing over you right now.

Later, he professed his love for Game of Thrones, but anyone who follows Frightened Rabbit's Twitter feed already knows of that obsession. He also promised to play a lot of songs, as this would be their last tour for a little while, which is always bittersweet news when you're smitten with a band. Logically, you know it's good and necessary, especially if you want to hear new music from the group, but selfishly, you want them to play your town, say, once a quarter (trying not to be selfish here).

Overall, the band stuck with the core setlist that's characterized most of the last year of shows, highlighting tracks from Pedestrian Verse but with a number of unexpected additions. One of those surprises came early, as they rolled out "Music Now" from Sing the Greys, though Scott couldn't count himself among the fans of that record. The band did it anyway, a relatively simple and straightforward track compared to the emotional epics they're better known for these days.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

A few songs later, Scott, Grant, and Gordon gathered onstage for a new song, the aforementioned Game of Thrones-inspired track. Scott offered another glimpse into his thought processes as he explained how the machinations depicted on the show could be inspirational, moving you to go for what you want -- minus the violence (and dragons?), of course. I'm not sure how the lovely acoustic "Candlelit" would go over in Westeros, but at the Warfield, it was a haunting showcase of their harmonies and songwriting. (Note: I've never watched Game of Thrones.)

Scott was left on his own for his acoustic segment, this time comprising three whole songs instead of the single track we heard at the Fillmore. Scott asked for requests to kick off, but as expected, the actual song titles were buried in a barrage of voices. A new friend managed to get in "Poke" at exactly the right moment. Scott heard it and jumped in, but there was no way he wasn't going to do that song, for good reason. It's an all-time classic track with great bones: a deceptively simple melody, pinpoint lyrics, and candid delivery. As long as people have their hearts broken, "Poke" will enjoy its spot on playlists the world over. Afterward, Scott remarked it may have been his favorite performance of the song yet. Perhaps he says that in a lot of towns, but as with most of Frightened Rabbit's music, I'm willing to accept the sincerity.

The second song was all Scott, as he chose "Scottish Winds," giving away the band's homesickness. The acoustic set concluded with "Late March, Death March," a much more spontaneous selection and a performance that convinced me to revisit the tune.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

I'm loathe to dictate a band's setlist (a la the assholes in Calgary), but by the same token, I really want to hear certain songs. With Frightened Rabbit, "Fast Blood" is one of them, and I was elated by its return to the setlist, orgasmic entendres and all. In fact, those older songs continue to mesmerize: "The Modern Leper," "My Backwards Walk," "Old Old Fashioned," to name a few. Now I can add "State Hospital" and "Oil Slick" among others to that list. "Oil Slick" in particular has snuck up on me; with its slinky guitar and rising coda, it'd be a huge pop hit in my alternate universe.

The band closed with the trifecta of "The Woodpile," "Keep Yourself Warm," and "The Loneliness and the Scream." With "Keep Yourself Warm," Scott explained how they were trying not to play it for a year, but eventually gave in -- a smart move. It's a favorite for a reason, not least because of the blunt sexual imagery and searing, highly repeatable lines ("You won't find love in a hole" and "It takes more than fucking someone/to keep yourself warm"), and it never fails to inspire a visceral response in the audience. There's an amazing video on YouTube of the crowd doing all the work for Scott in an intimate hometown show; I don't think we get anywhere near the Scottish fans' connection, but every time I've seen the band, we make a decent effort.

I kind of want to go into an extended treatise on the song's shift from a hymn to a highland wail to an anthem to a disco track (a similarly dancey beat takes over in the last third of "The Twist," by the way), only to double back on itself, but I'm not qualified to do so. I also want to remark that the brothers' bond might be one of the reasons the drums and percussion more prominently anchor the band's songs as opposed to other acoustic/songwriter-based setups, but that too is beyond my abilities. However, I will note that tonight in the instrumental apex of the song, Scott quoted from the song itself and not another artist's work, unlike at previous shows.

Speaking of visceral tracks, "The Loneliness and the Scream" was the closer I wanted to hear, mostly for the screaming part. That song is pure release, whether you're tuned into the driving rhythm or the echoing calls. The opening band the Augustines returned to the stage to shout and drum and hug and jump and drink -- all completely valid reactions to this powerhouse.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

Before I finish up, I need to note a few more aspects to this show. The Warfield was perhaps half full for this show; the floor was brimming with fans, but not uncomfortably so, while the balcony was at a fraction of capacity. You can point to several reasons why: This was the band's third visit (by my count) to San Francisco in less than 12 months, there was no real new material to promote, it was a Monday night, and this is a heavy concert season. The turnout didn't seem to faze the band, but it did make me wonder where the new fans will come from next.

For instance, Frightened Rabbit just toured with the National, but I've heard barely a peep about the reaction to the openers. Heck, I'm guilty of the same (I don't really have time to write about the Augustines, except to say that I've never seen anyone so happy to play the Warfield as the lead singer, who grew up in the area), but a part of me was hoping they'd get a little more recognition for all their time on the road. With a solid fan base, a new record, and (one hopes) growing exposure, Frightened Rabbit will surely fill up the Warfield -- or better yet, do two shows at the Fillmore -- eventually, but tonight's gig served as a reminder to keep expectations intact. I've seen enough U.K. bands unable to gain a foothold in the United States that the sight of a underpopulated hall gives me pause.

Frightened Rabbit, 09-30-2013

Finally, I managed to be one of the 20 fans who ordered tickets fast enough to get into the meet and greet before the show. We ended up watching about 40 minutes of the soundcheck, which was simultaneously cool and banal, as is the case with most soundchecks. The actual meeting and greeting followed, and I can't stress enough how lovely they were to everyone. I realize it's not the most natural environment, but the band was nothing short of humble and gracious. I actually left while most of the fans were still there, and I have no idea how much longer they stayed. My earlier question about where the fans will come from? This wasn't a bad way to sew up the faithful.

To the Scots: Please come back soon, as often as you'd like. For anyone else who might be reading: This is a band to treasure.

Thanks to the contributors at for their work on the setlist for the Warfield show.

See also:
» lots to do with magnets and the pull of the moon
» we adopt a brand-new language
» let's get old fashioned
» before i change my mind