Is this thing on? Eh, what's a little dust between friends? Now, onto the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, circa 2014.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 3 to 5, 2014: Oy vey, three-plus months without a show -- not even a free one! Would you believe I've been going to baseball games? Though raised on football (and futbol, come to think of it) to the point where I checked out books about '70s-era Raiders (Kenny "The Snake" Stabler! Lester Hayes! Biletnikoff!) from my school library in an effort to bond with my father, I've finally fallen in love with the most old-fashioned of old-fashioned games. Granted, attending two World Series parades and working down the street from the ballpark the cutest catcher in the game calls home doesn't hurt. Still, what's not to love about this view?
Oh, right, Hardly Strictly! The timing of the festival couldn't be better, as the music assuaged all my anxiety over the playoffs and/or gave me a reason to stretch out of the fetal position I've been stuck in since the play-in game. Per usual, I'll proceed in chronological order.
For the first time in a while, I took the Friday off for the festival, with the vague goal of seeing one artist, but little else in way of set plans. Instead, I hopped a friend's blankets and coattails throughout most of the day. First stop: Rooster Stage, which has been an impregnable fortress every time I've casually passed by. Now I know the key is to get there early, if you want to give yourself a fighting chance. Friday at the Rooster Stage has become known as the Conor Oberst show, but I only wanted to see Waxahatchee, beloved by one of my Canadian tipsters. I had no idea what to expect, but they seemed to have great lyrics, and the duo's spare, acoustic performance eased us gently into the long, hot weekend of music.
Next up, over to Star Stage for Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, not only a rocking Vietnamese lady, but a local resident to boot. I'd seen her once previously and thought she was great. I haven't been able to get to any of her shows since, but it's cool to see her bloom and join in on one of the city's marquee events. She and the band sounded awesome, and by my count, she played four different instruments through the set.
Our paths led over to the Arrow Stage, which unfortunately was the hottest, sunniest spot in the entire field on this 90-degree day. I hadn't planned to, but I stuck it out for Hooray for the Riff Raff, who were fun, upbeat, and engaging -- not to mention spot-on politically for the crowd. To top it off, there was still room to do-si-do on Friday.
However, I had played hooky from work specifically for Cibo Matto, who followed Hooray for the Riff Raff on Arrow. I've had a chance to see the band in its reincarnation a few times now, but the twist on this tour was the addition of Nels Cline. I'll go into the tunes a little more in my write-up of the band's gig at the Chapel, but let me say this about the festival performance: Damn, that was fun! Thirsty, sweaty, hot, and sunburned (to varying degrees), we danced our butts off to Cibo Matto. With the musicians themselves jumping around, not to mention Miho and Yuka breaking out their choreography, how could we stand still? Overall, their set was a condensed version of their solo show, but they closed with perennial favorite "Birthday Cake," moving the woman next to me (a complete stranger) to exclaim, "I love that song!"
I don't go to enough festivals to know how the demographics shape up from event to event, but the Cibo Matto crowd warmed my bleeding heart. Clearly, Cibo Matto falls under the "hardly strictly" banner, and all the more power to them for it. Looking around, you could see Japanese visitors, the typical hippie contingent, Nels Cline gear heads, Gen Xers, and today's millennials, all looking for an excuse to dance around and yell out lyrics about BBQ. They were so good, I had no choice but to leave after their set and save what little energy I had left. It was going to be a long weekend! Even better, the Giants took game one of the NLDS around the same time Cibo Matto took the stage.
Saturday also started early and warm, but the wandering was over, as far as I was concerned. Instead, we set up at the Star Stage, and I (for one) stayed there throughout. The day began with Whograss, specially gathered for the festival. A fellow early bird gave me the heads-up on the ensemble: Local notables coming together to cover Who tunes in the bluegrass style. The roll call included Chris von Sneidern, Prairie Prince, and Peter Sear, among others, but my favorite guest was Chuck Prophet, who dropped in for "Pinball Wizard." Truth be told, the bluegrass was less than discernible, but you gotta hand it to them for closing with "My Generation."
If you've been to Hardly Strictly, you know the sets at Star and Towers of Gold are staggered, so you can easily listen to the entire roster from one location. We heard Red Baraat, who were probably incredibly entertaining, if not my cuppa. Back at Star, Bad Luck Jonathan -- aka Jon Langford and friends circa 2014 -- rocked out in ridiculous costumes that looked less than comfortable in the heat. The fashion plate among them was introduced as "the pope of Golden Gate Park," whereas Jon and company had to make do with looking like groomsmen at best. At least Sally Timms wore an appropriately summery dress.
I wouldn't have minded catching Deltron's set on Towers of Gold, but the maneuvering and jostling had already begun, so the PA would have to do. I may have been the only person to be surprised by the closer "Clint Eastwood," but I'm glad they got it in.
Justin Townes Earle was the first performer of the day I truly wanted to see. I'll discuss more in my review of his Great American show, but I'll point out one major difference between the two performances. At Hardly Strictly, he poured out his love and appreciation for his wife of one year. She aptly beamed from the backstage. He too performed a shorter version of his full set, but retained several highlights, including a new closing cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." I'm pretty sure I've already professed my love of the song on this blog, so there's one plus for the tune. He also mentioned it reminded him of his mother, as did the Replacements song he sang in earlier shows.
Mavis Staples rounded out Saturday's roster. Alas, no guests dropped in (we hear they were communing with nature up north), but Mavis hardly needed a helping hand. Love poured out to her, and she sent it right back to us. We sang along like fools and did all her bidding, as requested. Like Cibo Matto, Mavis drew a diverse crowd, from Baby Boomers (such as the man behind me who found a sudden store of energy to pop up from the stool he had brought along to stand on his feet, loudly requesting "I'll Take You There" at every opportunity) to college students and everyone in between. Obviously, I've seen Mavis in concert before, but this time, without the younger friends, she may have been even more powerful and moving than I expected. Thus, our Saturday at the park drew to a close -- we had a long Sunday ahead of us.
Seven years ago now, we enjoyed the best spot imaginable at the Banjo Stage, thanks to a friend's diligence and single-mindedness. That didn't happen again, though we managed to drag ourselves to the park early enough to learn exactly when you need to show up to grab the prime real estate. We did fine, staked right behind the disabled section; we figured most of the people in front of us would at least be sitting down. Also, the fog finally returned in the morning, and the temperatures dropped to a reasonable level.
I've stayed away from Banjo for a while now, so I wasn't prepared to be steeped in so much tradition -- but that's all on me, not Banjo. Granted, the day's first notes were traditional enough: Emmylou's sound check, which was a small concert in itself. She sounded lovely, and her guitarist reeled off "Hey Joe" before they left the stage.
Of the six acts scheduled for Banjo, two were less than doctrinaire. The first was Malawi Mouse Boys, who broke out at WOMAD last year and are now touring the globe. They had little relation to the rest of the music we'd hear for the rest of the day, other than perhaps the DIY, down-home roots, but I enjoyed their energy and harmonies first -- er, second thing in the morning.
I don't have a ton to say about Hot Rize, the Earls of Leicester, or Ralph Stanley, though I'm sure you can find words of appreciation elsewhere. They were all a twangy run-up to Tweedy, the highlight of my entire festival.
If you've been following this blog, you know I haven't seen a ton of shows this year, including my favorites -- Tweedy among them. I haven't been able to travel to the shows, but lucky for me, their only West Coast date this year (so far) was scheduled for my backyard.
One thought occurred to me as I watched the genre stalwarts fill up the day: Tweedy would be a marked departure. As far as I could tell, the band didn't even use a banjo! The stage's host remarked as much too, drawing a parallel to the old Ed Sullivan show and how we were in for something different. Well, he certainly knew his audience. Though perhaps not so different from Wilco, Tweedy took a hard left turn from the tradition we'd been hearing all day with "Diamond Light" and "Please Don't Let Me Be So Misunderstood." Alas, the hardcore fest-goers who had Emmylou on their minds didn't look particularly moved until later in the set, when Jeff went solo acoustic and broke out old Wilco and Uncle Tupelo tracks. I didn't realize this was part of the Tweedy show, but I always dig Jeff on his own -- which is how he first came to Hardly Strictly years ago.
If I had my way, the setlist would've included "Acuff Rose," mainly because a festival of this sort probably wouldn't be possible without it, but the two closers were well called: the Doug Sahm cover and the crowd-pleasing "California Stars," which finally got the masses up and dancing, including our distinguished emcee and an equally venerable friend.
On the musical front, I loved seeing the band craft the tunes in front of our eyes. Spencer Tweedy has enjoyed his share of the spotlight for this record -- for good reason. His work on the album belies his 18 years on earth, and his live skills measured up to the already elevated expectations. Jim Elkington and Liam Cunningham were surprises to me -- I had no idea Jim would take so many of the guitar solos, and Liam added lovely touches with his all-around contributions (backing vocals!). I hope they return to the West Coast, but until then, I'm beyond glad they landed at Hardly Strictly for this exclusive date.
Having made it this far, we stuck around for the one and only Emmylou Harris. I don't remember her set being as straightforward; then again, many of the veterans have passed, and several of her usual collaborators had moved on to their next tour dates. Still, count your blessings when Emmylou is the glue that holds your festival together.See also:
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