It was less than a week after the massacre on the Las Vegas strip. People at a Country and Western Festival had been gunned down. It looked like the work of a lone gunman, but even that had to make you think. How many nut jobs are there out there?
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival would be held on the next weekend in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The event is free and there are no entrances. There are no checkpoints for security checks. The Festival area is not fenced off. There would be a huge crowd with little security by today’s standards. Well, the show must go on!
This year’s post may read more like a list. There will be some commentary. Some song titles are approximate.
Friday. October 6.
Friday is the best day to go. The crowd just isn’t as large or as intense as the rest of the weekend. Everything just seems more laid back on the first day. I went with Jack Stuber, one of the founding members of local band Cornbread Willie. We parked at 44th and Cabrillo. We park farther and farther away each year. This year my plan was to get there later and leave later. It didn’t work out that way.
There are only four stages going today. There’s no Towers of Gold Stage, so the first music we chanced upon was at The Swan Stage: Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors were singing “American Beauty.” Then a new song: “Family.
You can’t go wrong with Dry Branch Fire Squad. They’re one of the first acts I ever saw at HSB. It’s real Bluegrass with the band led by slow talking Ron Thomasson: “Even people that are into Bluegrass say we’re a little hard to take.” “Valley of the Gun.” “Take Me In.”
Thomasson says that “Rock and Roll would have been impossible without Bluegrass.” He said it at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction for Bill Monroe.
Heidi Clare is guest on fiddle. As if the music wasn’t traditional enough she does a clog dance.
We met up with Van. “It’s like the old days!” when HSB drew crowds of thirty thousand. It was still early.
We check out Big Thief at The Rooster Stage and hear three songs: “Mary.” “Masterpiece” and “Shoulders. They sing some great harmonies.
Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express at The Swan. They open with the first of many tributes to Tom Petty this weekend. “The Waiting.” “Waiting is the hardest part.” Prophet not only sounds like Petty, he looks like him too.
“Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.” “Go All the Way.” An unknown new song.
I still scribble song titles on a piece of paper, but in the last couple of years I’ve been using Setlist.fm more. 2016 was a “Bad Year for Rock and Roll.”
Prophet has written some great songs about San Francisco history. Some of them are on his album The Temple. “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” is about the Mitchell Brothers. “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp.)” “Mausoleum.”
There are no more printed handouts of the schedules and act biographies. They can be downloaded from the HSB web site. It makes sense, but I’ll still miss the paper. Will most ephemera be lost?
There is one big change. The Arrow Stage is now The Arrow Meadow. This is in the former Speedway Meadows that have been renamed for Warren Hellman. There are now two smaller stages. The Bandwagon stage is an RV that has been opened up to create a performance space. Next to it is the Victrola Stage. It has a huge Victrola behind the stage. Very cool.
The Arrow Stage had been a problem traffic area. The stage and a row of food vendors created a traffic bottleneck. There were problems with the sound coming from the nearby Banjo Stage. The Arrow Stage had the more “Hippie” Sixties Grateful Dead type acts. That action seemed to be more spread out this year at the other stages. Was it one of the reasons the HSB crowd seemed more laid back this year?
Nearby is the Silent Disco. It’s not open for business yet. The area reminds me of an empty amusement park.
Foy Vance was on the Bandwagon Stage solo with a guitar and a synthesizer. The acoustic problem wasn’t totally solved. He was sometimes drowned out by the end of Billy Bragg’s set at the Banjo Stage.
There were understated public announcements. I never heard any mention of Las Vegas from the stage. There are announcements about the few rules every year, but I think people listened to them more this year. This year it was a little more than the “No smoking in the Park” announcement. Know the nearest park exit. That sounded nice, but I had to wonder. How much would that help if something really happened. Would people calmly look for the proper exit? Or would they crash off into the trails and bushes?
“If you’re at The Rooster Stage exit towards the ocean.” At least this announcement made some sense. The back of the Rooster Stage has cyclone fencing put up to accommodate the VIP golf carts. They could block a quick exit for those on the hill.
We went back to the Rooster Stage and caught the end of The Felice Brothers. “Ghost Town.” I’ve seen them before at HSB. They’re a lively band that features an accordion. During “Where’d You Get Your Liquor?” they used some lines from “Froggy Went a Courting,” an old family favorite.
It was time to get serious about food options. There are more food vendors and trucks this year. It cut down on the lines a bit and offered even more variety. I went with a piece of pizza.
People still dress up for HSB. They get out their cowboy clothes. There is some Halloween in the air. One guy was skating around with a gold costume and odd headgear. On his back it read: “RIP SOL.” The Summer of Love may finally be over.
Back to The Banjo for ‘The Bo-Keys featuring Don Bryant and Percy Wiggins.” “Learned My Lesson in Love.” They’re a big band from Memphis, Tennessee and have a great R&B sound.
No alcohol is sold legally at the event, but there are entrepreneurs. One group of young men even had a sign: “HSB Beer.” As the weekend went on the forces of law and order prevailed. The few sellers left were very more cautious.
T Bone Burnett will close today’s festivities at The Banjo Stage. Missed him last year, so that made him a priority for me.
Walking on JFK Drive, Stuber and I spotted a guy wearing the “Hot Rod” Rowdy Roddy Piper tee shirt. We gave him high fives. “Best tee shirt of the day!” His spirit lives on!
There would be a long wait for T Bone Burnett, so we went back to The Rooster for First Aid Kit. “It’s a Shame.” “Emmy Lou” is a song about Emmy Lou Harris.
I’ve always liked the dark, ominous sounds of T Bone Burnett, but today’s set is puzzling. Burnett is onstage with two others, a drummer and a synthesizer. Burnett is in front of a synthesizer. I don’t see any guitars onstage. The first song is a long spoken word piece. I thought it was just an intro, but it went on and on. Burnett drones the lyrics like the voice of God. I tried to stay just to see if anything would happen, but eventually I gave up.
Stuber commented that it seemed like he was trying to prove he could do anything onstage and his fans would approve. “River of Love.” “Trap Door.”
We did stop on the way back to the car for some of Brandi Carlile. “This Is My Song” “I Was Made For You.” Great end to the day.
Saturday. October 7.
Took the bus today and went solo. On a tip from Jack Stuber I got there in time for Gurf Morlix. With a name like that, how could I have never heard of this guy? Went up the hill on the right of The Rooster Stage. One of my first “spots” at HSB. Too much of it is fenced off now. There seemed to be technical problems setting up and getting started. Didn’t start until 12:44. “Deeper Down.” The new album is “Soul and the Heart.” We hear “Love Remains Unbroken.”
Gurf looks like a crazy geezer that has come down out of the hills. He has long white hair and a ZZ Top style beard. He told a story about going to a funeral. He didn’t really know the guy that well. It was an acquaintance. The funeral was quite a production and looked expensive.
At the reception he found himself introduced to the funeral director. He asked him about the cost of an event like this. The funeral director thundered: “Don’t you have any respect for the dead?” Gurf replied, “Upper case or lower case?”
The music is kind of Country and Western and Rocking. Fats Kaplan is on steel guitar.
“The next song is about a good man who did some bad things... It’s not autobiographical.” Someone in the band cracks, “But it could be!” “A Good Man Who May Have Done Some Bad Things.”
Gurf talks about the B Major 7th chord. “It’s a pretty chord.” Then he does “My Chainsaw.” It’s one of my highlights from this year’s HSB.
Gurf: “Some people say my songs are a bit on the dark side. I don’t think so...”
He sarcastically admits and apologizes for not sounding like John Denver or Barry Manilow. Gets a cheer from the crowd.
Gurf talks about Warren Zevon. He knew him when he was writing “Werewolves of London.” When Zevon told a friend, Waddy Wachtel, that he was writing a song about werewolves in London Waddy immediately howled. It became the howl that is heard on the record, and Wachtel got a one third songwriting credit for the howl! Gurf plays the perfect Halloween song for San Francisco. Buddy Miller joins for this and “This May Be the Last Time,” A Blind Boys of Alabama song.
“The Parting Glass.”
My must for today is: Peter Rowan - Dharma Blues featuring Jack Casady.
Peter Rowan looks ancient. It’s funny. Jack Casady has short hair, but looks almost the same as he did in the Sixties. He’s playing a large acoustic bass that does have an electric hookup.
“Raven.” “Dharma Blues” has an exquisite start. They’re really doing some great weaving here. “My Love Will Never Change.” A song about Jerry Garcia: “Jerry and the Deep Blue Sea.” “It’s a Hard Lesson to Learn.”
Dragonflies are buzzing the Banjo Stage Area. There must be fifty of them. What is drawing them to this crowded part of the Park. Don’t they prefer water?
The brazen entrepreneurs with their “HSB Beer” sign are still here. Guys selling beer are more cautious today. The cops did chase most of them away.
Today’s tee shirt of the day: A young woman sports an “Orgasm Donor” tee shirt.
Phil Lesh must have been checking out his former colleague at The Banjo Stage. He’s getting a ride on one of the VIP golf carts. He slips through with few bystanders recognizing him.
I go to the Arrow Meadow. There is a big crowd for Willie Watson at The Victrola Stage. He plays an acoustic guitar and has a synthesizer in front of him. He’s doing the old, familiar Folk tune: “If I Could Change This World.” He says that he doesn’t have that much time onstage, “I usually tell stories.” For his last song he does “The Midnight Special.” People stand, clap along and sing. He has many devoted fans here today.
At the back of Hellman Hollow was the Silent Disco. I’d seen this at other events in San Francisco. You put on a pair of headphones and went onto a designated dance floor. I was a bit surprised at how popular it is. There were hundreds dancing around with headphones on. I’ll try this when there’s not so much live music going on.
There are certain acts I see every year by chance. I don’t really plan on seeing them, but I happen to be walking by when they’re playing. Such is “Alison Brown and the Compass Bluegrass All Stars featuring Bobby Osborne.” I’m fading a bit and just sit in the back.
They’ve taken out almost all the picnic tables. I realized how much I depended on them to take a little break and sit somewhere that’s not on the ground. It does make a difference. There’s nowhere to take a real break. The museums and their concessions are too far away. I thought about leaving and visiting the real world, but then I’d notice something coming up on one of the stages and decide to go for it. Hey, it’s only once a year.
Even with six stages going there are some strange gaps in the schedule where nothing is going on. Or nothing is going on right around me. I can hear the party sound of Ozomatli coming from The Swan. The crowd already takes up the entire meadow. This used to be rare. Now it happens earlier every year. People are showing up for the later acts: Patti Griffin and Sturgill Simpson. I lounge at the back of the crowd. Never saw the stage.
The Blue Angels roared overhead. Fleet Week and HSB had been on separate weekends for a couple of years, but not this year.
Even though they were aggravating and drowned out some of the music I still find jet airplanes fascinating. I did get some great views of their aerial display.
A couple of dogs started fighting. They were spooked by the jet sound and then they went after each other. The Blue Angels soared overhead. Dogs started fighting on the ground.
The Saturday crowd is larger. Robert Earl Keen was a priority. I wanted to get at least a look at the Saturday night party crowd.
Most people tended to walk on the inner part of the JFK Drive if they were headed east. Those headed west, towards the Towers of Gold Stage tended to use the outside lane. An odd traffic herd instinct. I wound through people and crossed the road.
It was three o’clock. I considered leaving. If I bailed, it would be the earliest I had ever left HSB. Maybe I’ll just see one more act.
The Towers of Gold Stage has a steep hill that runs along one side of the meadow. There is a view of the stage where Jamey Johnson was playing. I had seen him last year in a similar situation. Just get a spot on the hill and get out of the human traffic. He had a big band with him that looked slick and professional. This was real Country and Western. A change of pace for me.
They were doing their Petty tribute as I got settled. “Southern Accents” “Room at the Top” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
“In Color.” I’ll have to track that song down. They cover the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” Another original: “Willin.’” A great version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.”
They cover Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down.” This could be the greatest trucking song ever. “We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”
One of the few real eccentrics left in San Francisco is Frank Chu. He wanders big events like this with a sign warning of alien invasions. He’s still making the scene, but his clothes are torn and frayed. How long can his quixotic quest go on?
Usually Robert Earl Keen closed The Rooster Stage on Saturday night. There was more room for the party crowd here at the Towers of Gold Stage. The crowd didn’t seem as rowdy. Was it because everyone wasn’t jammed into the smaller Rooster Stage area? Maybe it was because it wasn’t dark yet. I was able to walk through the crowd and get closer.
I still scribble song titles while I’m at HSB, but now I turn to setlist.fm for guidance. Keen opens with the Grateful Dead song, “Casey Jones.”
“The Man Behind the Drums.” Keen’s tribute to Levon Helm.
Keen sure sounds like Dylan. He’s barking the lyrics at us.
“The Rose Hotel.” “Dreadful Selfish Crime” segues into “I Know You Rider.” “If I Were King.” “Shades of Gray.” “Feelin’ Good Again.” This is where I take off.
I’ve learned to look before I leap at HSB. I looked down JFK Drive. There was a mass of humanity. Yeah, I could get through it eventually, but I opted for the longer route that goes around the Polo Fields. A flock of large geese foraged on the football fields.
Heard the last song of Buddy Miller at The Rooster Stage. It was tempting to stay for Dan Auerbach. (The Black Keys) but a large crowd was gathering for the last act of the day here. It had been another full day and I bussed it home in time to see Steve Earle and the Dukes online.
I’ll say it again, live is much better, but it’s hard to beat being able to sit in a chair and see what’s going on onstage. “City of Immigrants” “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” “Dominick Street/The Galway Girl” “Harlan Man” “The Mountain.” “Jerusalem” “Copperhead Road.”
There was the odd Dragnet beginning to “San Franciscan Nights.” This made up for Eric Burdon not playing it at Stern Grove. The fiftieth Summer of Love was coming to an end. “ Transcendental Blues.” “Fixin’ To Die” “Hey Joe!” Another version of “I Know You Rider.” Funny how some songs keep popping up.
Another powerful performance by Steve Earle with his usual political statements.
Sunday. October 8.
Arrived at The Rooster Stage at 11:30 for part of The Secret Sisters. “You Don’t Own Me Anymore.”
The Secret Sisters were too nice for me. Hot Tuna at the Banjo Stage was my top priority today. I got there in time to see the end of The Sons of the Soul Revivers, “The Gospel sensations.”
Hot Tuna Electric. 12:15. It’s still great to see Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy play in Golden Gate Park. This is where it all happened.
Bubbles swirled in the air. Got there in time for “Trial By Fire.” “I Just Can’t Be Satisfied.” “Talkin’ About You,” a song once covered by The Rolling Stones.
They’re quite a power trio, with Justin Guip on drums.
Between songs someone says, “Tuning is overrated.” Pretty sure it was Jorma.
“Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man.” “Watch the North Wind Rise.” “Funky #7.”
The MC after the set: “Let’s hear it for Hot Tuna. They play something old and aways make it new and challenging.”
A guy walked around with a large sign: Free Destiny Readings. I saw him later with a guy who wore a tall wizard hat. Guess he was drumming up business for him.
There was a half hour before the next act, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones. This was a good chance to visit the smallest stage, The Porch Stage. The Sisters Morales were getting tuned up. “The World Goes Around and Around.” Even the acts on the smallest stage have to be talented. The acts that perform on The Porch Stage could make a great event on their own!
Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones is another act that I see almost every year. It’s usually a case of convenient scheduling. He’s got one of those great soothing show business voices. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen ...”
Alvin dedicates the first song to flood victims across the country. It’s a Big Bill Broonzy song: “Southern Flood Blues.” Then into: “Haley’s Comet.”
Alvin says the next song is “A thirties political song. It’s as true today...” “This World Is In a Bad Condition.” It was originally done by The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.
Alvin admits that anyone who has recorded this next song sings it better than he can, “But I wrote it!” “Long White Cadillac.”
“Johnny Ace Is Dead.”
Next is “an existential song” that Alvin says he’s never done at HSB. “Out of Control.” His brother usually sings it. Are they feuding again? The first line is, “I scored some speed in San Berdino...”
“Fourth of July.” A cover of Spirit’s “I Got A Line On You.”
I made an attempt to see “Lampedusa Featuring Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Emmy Lou Harris, Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams.” From the HSB biographies handout: “Lampedusa is part of a series of shows that aim to raise awareness of the 65 million displaced people around the world as a result of war, conflicts and disasters.”
This was being held at The Rooster Stage. It was a poor choice for an act with this star power. Thousands streamed in. It was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at The Rooster Stage. I lurked way in the back during “Refugee” another tribute for Tom Petty. It was just too crowded.
I got a “Bacon Melt” from one of the food vendors near The Rooster Stage. I found a spot and took a total break from the crowds. I could hear the rocking sounds of Nelson & Promise of the Real coming from the Swan Stage. “Die Alone.” “Four Letter Word.” Another Tom Petty tribute: “American Girl.” “Runnin’ Shine.” “High Times.” “Something Real.” “Forget About Georgia,” a breakup song about a woman, not the state. “Find Yourself.” The singer talked about being in Neil Young’s band.
The Flatlanders. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Butch Hancock.
I should know the songs better by now. Well, I do just see them once a year. Usually they played the now gone Arrow Stage on Saturday night. Today they’re at The Banjo Stage. There’s still plenty of room, but it didn’t have that Saturday night vibe.
“Reap What You Sow.” “Standing at the Station.” “From the Cradle to the Grave.” “Julia.”
There is more Blue Angels jet action today. We get buzzed.
I reconnoitered near the back of the Swan Stage. Some millennial buskers formed a circle near me. Several were in HSB fashion. Straw hats and blue jean bib overalls. Somehow I knew they just didn’t step off the farm. They had a couple of guitars, a banjo and a mandolin. I’ll admit that I thought they would be an aggravation, but they did know what they were doing. “Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Those close enough to hear gave them a round of applause.
A former floor colleague had tipped me about Courtney Barnett (Thanks Cliff!) so I knew about the female rocker from Down Under. She’s teamed with Kurt Vile in a new band: The Sea Lice. I just love that name: Kurt Vile.
The set list from setlist.fm: “Over Everything.” “Fear Is Like A Forest.” “Continental Breakfast” A couple of Courtney Barnett songs: “Out of the Woodwork” “Avant Gardener” “On Tour (A Kurt Vile song) “Depreston” “Untogether.”
Courtney and Kurt wore matching plaid shirts. I’m sure there’s a joke there somewhere. How Grunge can you get?
It was deep into the “Hardly” part of HSB. After the Grunge set it wasn’t that far back to the Towers of Gold for Cheap Trick. Would every former juvenile delinquent at HSB head for this area? I got a spot on the hill. An audio tape took us through the history of the band, concluding with the question: “Are you ready for the greatest fucking Rock and Roll band in the world?”
“Hello There.” “Big Eyes.” “California Man” “Ain’t That A Shame” a cover of the Fats Domino song. “Baby Loves to Rock” with “Long Time Coming.”
Cheap Trick’s antics were amusing, but after a while I made a move. There was a long bass solo. They did a cover of “I’m Waiting For the Man” a Velvet Underground song. Guess it’s back to the roots.
I don’t listen to much radio now, but I do check out Grinder’s Grooveyard on local radio station KPOO on Monday nights. Rockin’ Jim Grigsbee has been a longtime DJ and record collector. 89.5 FM. Every show is a look at music history. One Monday night, he played a wild instrumental by one Junior Brown. I did some research on Youtube and found wild footage of him playing live. He would close this year’s festivities on The Rooster Stage!
Junior Brown plays a “guit-steel” double neck guitar. It’s an electric guitar with a steel pedal guitar. It creates a wild, rowdy, roadhouse sound. Junior sure looks like an original good old boy. “Who’s ready for some twanging?”
“Party Lights.” “The party is over for me.” “Lifeguard Larry.” A hilarious “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead. “I Hung It Up.” “Long Walk Back From San Antone.” “Freeborn Man.” “Deep In the Heart.” “Another Honky Tonk Burned Down.”
It’s not as crowded here as earlier in the day. I can easily walk up to the sound tent for a good view. HSB seems to be winding down. Many are headed to the 25th Avenue exit. Junior does have many fans left, and he’s rocking the place. The songs are short.
“Between Anger and Despair.” “Guit-Steel Blues.” “Highway Patrol.” “Give Me a Little Old Fashioned Love.” “The Better Half.” “I Wouldn’t Buy a Used Car From Him.” “Hang Up and Drive.” “Blues Power.” “Surf Medley.” “So Close Yet So Far Away.”
What better way to end this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival than Junior’s cover of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.”
Got home in time to see some of Lucinda Williams online. Going three days in a row is a little crazy, but it’s close to my neighborhood.
It could have been an odd year at HSB after the tragedy in Las Vegas. As the weekend went on people seemed to forget about it. I know I did. The threat of terrorism means things will never be the same. It was a bit of a relief that nothing happened.