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!
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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