Every October, we in the Bay Area are forced to make hard choices, some of which can tear you apart. I hated deciding between the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the last Giants home games of the year (postseason or no) -- so I split the difference. Fortunately, I was able to get to two days of the festival and catch a bunch of awesome acts.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 2-4, 2015: How relaxed was I to start off the festival? I took the day off from work to enjoy unfettered access to all the music I desired, yet didn't leave my place until 4 pm. Even then, I totally misread the schedule -- I thought the Punch Brothers started at 4:30, but in fact, they were onstage at 4:10. By the time I arrived at the Banjo Stage, they'd probably been playing for a good five minutes or so.
The early impression was not pretty. As I waded through the crowd at Banjo -- which I've told myself over the years I never want to do -- I had to wonder why bother at all. I mean, I've seen the Punch Brothers a bunch of times now, including in very close quarters, and though I like their music, I'm not gaga for them. Nonetheless, I soldiered on and settled in for about 20 minutes of their set, including the perpetually fun "Rye Whiskey," but I had to abandon ship after the Debussy number. Nothing against Debussy, but I realized the Punch Brothers' set doesn't vary enough for me to put up with the masses. However, they are certified crowd pleasers and a natural fit for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
The early exit from the Punch Brothers left me plenty of time to get to the much less congested Arrow Stage for Big Star Third. To my delight, it was low-key and mellow, I found a great spot, and -- most important -- I spotted Frank Riley, the man who's booked probably a million shows you've loved. Weekend complete! Well, not quite, but it was a nice item to check off early in the festivities.
Have I gone on record on this blog claiming album-in-their-entirety shows are passe? I stand by it, but I also reserve the right to make exceptions. I think every music nerd can remember the first time they heard Big Star. I'm pretty sure it happened to me at Largo, but of course Alex Chilton was already a legendary name courtesy of the Replacements. Over the years, I've grown more appreciative of Big Star, and their songs can haunt my brain for days on end.
In case you aren't familiar, Big Star Third is a roving assemblage of musicians playing Sisters Lovers, appropriately enough Big Star's third record. I'm too lazy to look up the core members, but it appears Chris Stamey and Jody Stephens are at the center of the group, and the day's gathering included such illustrious names as Mike Mills, Ken Stringfellow, and Pat Sansone, along with local favorites Chuck Prophet and Kelley Stoltz, not to mention Van Dyke Parks leading the Kronos Quartet and other guests whose names escape me.
As usual, I didn't take notes, so I can't tell you who sang what, but I can report they all sounded great. Seriously -- those were divine voices onstage, in a festival full of divine voices. I loved seeing the local faces, which provoked one man near me to inquire about Kelley Stoltz. Another concertgoer helpfully informed him of Kelley's awesome work over the years. Here's hoping the first fellow acted on the knowledge.
Jody Stephens' turns at the mic were especially charming, as he shared his gratitude and his memories with the crowd. As a fan, you had to love seeing a little bit of the original voices in the room. The extra touches -- the aforementioned Van Dyke Parks and Kronos Quartet, as well as a range of horns -- were wonderful too and hardly the grand treatment you'd expect at a free so-called bluegrass festival. But that's another reason to love Hardly Strictly.
I can't lie -- the "hits" were my favorites, and it was even great to hear a version of "Holocaust" that came in at less than 30 minutes. Here's a tip: Don't turn down the chance to hear "Femme Fatale," "September Gurls," or "Thank You Friends" performed by a dozen-odd top-shelf musicians.
Saturday was a little more purposeful, but hardly harried, as the first act I wanted to see happened to be on the smallest, most mellow stage. You'd be hard-pressed to label Nels Cline and Julian Lage as bluegrass in any way -- and that's fine! They still commanded a good audience over at the cozy, laidback Porch Stage. I can't begin to describe their music, except that they touch on a wide range of styles. While much of their set consisted of complex but effortless interplay, what I loved best were the moments where one would simply let the other go and intently observe, no strings touched. It's a beautiful example of trust and admiration.
From there, with a lot of help, we got to a great spot for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings -- which never happens for me. I was ready to be annoyed by my spot somewhere in the middle of the massive field, but Sandy came through with the connection and the moxie to get us to a prime location.
Have I talked enough about how much I love Gill and Dave? Can I make it any clearer? It's been too long since I've seen them, and even a few notes into their set, I was in heaven again. I think they did one new song, but they can sing the phone book in harmony, and I'd listen. They appeared to add another new cover to their repertoire: a version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" they worked up for their recent appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. The highlight for me remained "I'll Fly Away," which moved tons of people to get up from their lawn chairs and sing along. The singalongs get me every time.
From there, I vaguely tried to check out Paul Weller, but I couldn't be bothered past a song and decided to head over to the Robyn Hitchcock set at the Bandwagon Stage -- a new, tiny stage fashioned out of an Airstream-like trailer. As you can imagine, it was a very informal, casual set. Emma Swift joined him for a few songs, and they even soundchecked Roxy Music's "Oh Yeah," though alas, it didn't make the final set. (Sigh.) The best part of Robyn's set was his running claim that every song was set in 1970s San Francisco, even as he admitted it was really about his relationship with his mother. Look, there's no way to capture the aura of a Robyn Hitchcock gig or monologue, which is why you have to see him with our own eyes. Do yourself the favor!
And thus ended my Hardly Strictly adventure for the year. Fortunately, Rocktober is still in effect, so a couple more reports will filter in over the weeks. Once again, all the appreciation in the world goes to the late Warren Hellman and family. I'm continually amazed we get to partake of this treat year after year.
» tripping the dark fantastic
» don't get around much anymore
» i've heard a rumor from ground control
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» that's the way the cornbread crumbles
» overtook me by surprise