Friday, October 21, 2011

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2011

During the weekend many MCs and performers told the crowd that they were at “The greatest music festival in the world.” The lineup of acts is incredible. The drawback is that you can’t possibly see all the acts you “must see.” The event is free and draws huge crowds. The San Francisco Chronicle said there were 350,000 people over the weekend. Even when it was spread out over six stages the size of the crowd was at times staggering.

There is a Woodstock attitude among most of the crowd. Police presence is very low key. It’s not the parking lot before Metallica, or even ZZ Top, but the size of the crowd does present some problems. This year there were more cyclone fences to guide the crowd and keep them off the trails. This created human traffic jams at times. It was much harder to get from stage to stage.

It is a free event and sometimes I found myself wondering: Why did some of these people even come out? OK, I get it, it’s a social scene, like meeting your friends at the bar. Groups met and the chatter sometimes bordered on the ridiculous. Unfortunately, it goes with the territory. I’ll try to avoid complaining about the crowd conditions, but they must be mentioned. It also must be said that some crowd problems are better. People text more and don’t shout into their cellphones as much. Here is what I saw and heard the weekend of September 29 to October 2. Some song titles are shaky.

We’ve just moved and are a twenty minute walk from Golden Gate Park. Thursday was “The Children’s Show” for grammar school kids. It’s dedicated to Daniel Pearl, the journalist who had been kidnapped and killed just after 9/11. It was at The Star Stage. The sky was overcast and gray. A light rain had been forecast. It’s an event for the school kids and iron traffic fences had been put up to keep them in a separate area, but I don’t think there were over a hundred people there who weren’t students or teachers. Channel 7 news said there were 6,000 kids there. Most of the kids were bussed in. They were excited and there was the buzz and chatter school kids create when they’re in a large group. There’s a big cheer when they’re asked from onstage: “Is this better than school?”

Poor Man’s Whiskey would open. They’re forced to go under the acronym PMW so that some kid’s life isn’t ruined by hearing the W word. They play “Pig in a Pen.” The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2011 has begun.

Some grammar schools did this weird conga line thing. They put their hands on the shoulders of the person in front and walk in a big circle. The circle spins around and around. It looks like the start of a mini-mosh pit. PMW plays their big hit. “You may have heard this on the radio.”

Warren Hellman and Jimmie Dale Gilmore join for “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Hellman sings and seems to struggle a bit. They sing the line about “cigarette trees.” I was surprised they didn’t have to change that line in PC San Francisco. Hellman wears a large black jacket with The Star of David set in what I think are rhinestones. “I wear my religion on my sleeve.”

PMW announce the next song. “Your teachers know the words to this one. Make sure they are singing.” It’s Guns and Roses “Sweet Child of Mine.” Like many of their covers, they make it sound like it was always a Bluegrass song. They try an Axel sing along that doesn’t work too well.

It will be a short set for PMW. Warren Hellman schmoozes with members of the band as they take their equipment down. Jimmie Dale Gilmore takes pictures of the crowd of kids. The kids get to hear some of Aretha’s Greatest Hits during the break.

There are some festivities while they get the stage ready. Mayor Ed Lee says a few words. He’s wearing a Giants hat. I could see the dancers getting ready backstage.

The kids are very excited to see MC Hammer. First some backup dancers hit the stage. I think there were fifteen in all. They did wild dance routines, including one where dancers somersault past each other in midair. The music was blasting. There was never a musical instrument seen onstage. MC Hammer came onstage. It is great that he does this show for the kids. It’s been a long time since he danced in the parking lot of the Oakland Coliseum when he was a teenager, and wound up working for A’s owner Charlie Finley! They did “Too Legit to Quit.” For the finale, “Hammer Time,” the stage is filled with kids. They are definitely having a blast onstage.

Gilmore and Hellman stuck around and watched from a VIP area onstage. If Hellman did only this event it would be a big contribution to San Francisco. It’s still mind boggling that he picks up the entire tab for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Friday. 9/30. Rain was in the forecast again. It was gray and overcast in the early morning, but quickly cleared up. I arrived at The Banjo stage at about eleven a.m for Bill Kirchen. This was the stage Robert Plant & The Band of Joy would be at. Even at this early hour the place was filling up fast. I spread a blanket farther back than I had expected. Charlie Musselwhite was opening The Star Stage at the same time. It was a tough choice, but I went with Kirchen. I had seen him by chance at an earlier Hardly Strictly and been blown away.

“This is our feel good in the morning song.” “Bump Wood” “Rocks in the Sand” “Valley of the Moon.” Austin DeLone is on piano. They do a tribute to Hazel Dickens, a West Virginia song. They do an old song “Working on a Building” for the Holy Ghost.

Kirchen does spin a good tale. He talked about going to The Newport Folk Festival in ’64 and ’65. He rattles off the big names of the time that he saw, including a young Bob Dylan. He watched Dylan go electric. They do a great version of “The Times They Are A Changing,” one of the best versions I’ve ever heard.

Kirchen tells us that this is the fortieth anniversary of the hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln.” It was recorded in the Bay Area at Pacific Studios. “We staggered into the studio and we staggered out.” Kirchen’s version includes a history of Rock and Roll. He calls out the names of Rock and Blues icons, and then plays their trademark riffs. Albert King! Muddy Waters! Howling Wolf! Chuck Berry! The history rolls on with The Rolling Stones, Cream and even into more modern times with The Sex Pistols. Kirchen puts his high school classmate on the roll of Rock idols: Jim Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop!

In years past, Friday’s show had only one stage going. This year there are four. It’s hard to believe this festival is getting bigger. There was a break, and I wandered over to the next stage, The Arrow, to see Maxim Ludwig & The Santa Fe Seven. It’s one of the great things about Hardly Strictly. I’ll see bands that I don’t know and probably wouldn’t pay to see. These guys were Rockers. They’re a great bar band I thought to myself. Would they be insulted by that? “This is Not What I Wanted” “A Little Rock and Roll” “Here’s to the Nights We Didn’t Make It Home” “The Fortune Cookie said Sha La La."

A great thing about Hardly Strictly is that there is no corporate sponsorship. Warren Hellman pays for everything. So, there are no ads or commercial banners. How often does that ever happen anymore? It really effects the atmosphere of the event.

I go back to The Banjo stage. The Led Zeppelin effect will draw a huge crowd here. Usually I wander around, but I’ll stay in the spot most of the day.

Seldom Scene is the next act here. They’re the first real Bluegrass band I’ve seen today. “A Hundred and Ten in the Shade.” The first version of the weekend of “Know You Rider.” A Red Tailed Hawk circles high above the stage.

I have to admit, I had to see Plant, so we just stayed at The Banjo. Our spot became more valuable as the day went on. It was the usual scene. People kept pouring in. Sister Joan arrived and helped me save the spot. She reminisced about seeing Bromberg play at The Quiet Knight in Chicago.

The MC tells us that he knows an employee of San Francisco Park and Recreation. They love Hardly Strictly. He said the park is left as it was found. The employee said there isn’t much impact on the park. Hellman has paid for new sod and other repairs.

Next up is Bluegrass and Rock legend David Bromberg with The David Bromberg Quartet. “There are so many women I had to sleep with to get where I am today,” Bromberg tells us. “Old Country and Western Music” “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning.” “Roll Westward Freight Train.”

Bromberg says he got a call from Obama this morning. He senses the crowd’s skepticism. “I lived near Obama for years in Hyde Park.” He asked Obama how he could help get the economy going again. “Sell stuff,” the Chief Executive told him. So, if you want to help the economy get on its feet again, go over to the merchandise tent and do your part.

The next song is about our dependence on fossil fuels: “The World Is a Junkie.” Then they do a jam Bromberg calls “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Medley Number Thirteen.” During “Refuse to be Fooled” Bromberg does a great spoken word routine about how not a single molecule or string of DNA will be fooled by that woman again.

I wander over to The Arrow Stage again to see The Mekons. Jon Langford has appeared with different bands over the years at Hardly Strictly. This is the first time his original band, The Mekons will play the festival. “Train to Sheffield” “The Old Trip to Jerusalem” “Diamonds.” They’re interesting, but I head back to The Banjo.

The Del McCoury Band & The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I’ve seen McCoury several times at Hardly Strictly. Teaming his band up with Preservation is a great idea. It’s not strictly Bluegrass, but great roots Americana music and a bit of a history lesson. The members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band look a little bit out of place until they start blowing. The afternoon is getting warmer and they squint from their seats onstage.

“Charley is in town and he’s going to play.” “On the Bayou” “One Has My Name, The Other Has My Heart.” A member of Preservation takes center stage and sings his advice to the lovelorn. “Take My Advice... Hug her.” During the song there’s a long drum solo. The drummer comes from behind his kit to take a bow. He is short. “Hey, stand up!” his band mate yells. “One More Before I Die” We’re treated to two versions of “Banjo Frisco.” First they play the old version, then a more modern arrangement. Applause will determine the favorite.

The crowd keeps growing. John Prine is up next. New arrivals drown out much of the set. People are getting more obnoxious as the afternoon goes on. “Fish and Whistle” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” “Picture Show” “Run To Be In Heaven” “No Room In Heaven Anymore” “Spend the Night With Me” “Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows” “Souvenirs” (A song he wrote with Steve Goodman.) “Six O’Clock News” “Hello In There” “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” “Fishing In Heaven” “Old Glory” “Bear Creek”

Prine looks old, but he’s one of those guys who always looked old. He’s quiet and says very little between songs.

Some goofy young woman tries to spread a blanket in a space in front of me that is about two feet wide. “Oh, are you saving that space?” “No, I’m standing in it.” She went a little to our left. “Can I spread my blanket here?” she asked the neighbors. They showed the proper Woodstock attitude. Sure! There was barely room for a beach towel. She then got on the cell phone and six friends joined her. Thousands of scenarios like this were going on. One good thing is that I could hear people talking about leaving. “We’ll see some of Chris Isaak and be right back.” Right.

It was tough missing Chris Isaak playing about a mile from his home near the ocean, but I had to see Plant again. The crowd was annoying, but at least when the acts started everyone stood up. I can deal with that.

Plant had played here two years ago and put on a great show. It wasn’t going to be Led Zeppelin, but with Buddy Miller and The Band of Joy thrown in, this was a must for me. They started with “Satisfied Mind.”

I think Plant wanted to get the Led Zeppelin thing out of the way. “Black Dog” “Thank You” (“If the sun refused to shine...”) He doesn’t have the incredible overwhelming powerful voice anymore, but showed flashes of the Rock Star and gave the crowd what it wanted. He’s still Percy.

“Down to the Sea”

“Drowning Child” featuring Patti Griffin. “Mood for a Melody”

“Misty Mountain Hop” “Black Country Woman” “Ramble On” “Bron Y Aur Stomp”

The last song ended shortly after seven. I was surprised when they came back onstage. Part of the deal is to end at seven and cut down on neighbor’s complaints about “the noise.” “Hangman.” We blasted out of there during the song. This was a crowd you had to get out in front of. It took us about twenty minutes to walk home. We could see MUNI was in a state of chaos. People were still wandering around partying late into the night.

There was an e-mail with a link to Youtube footage of Plant and the Band of Joy’s set waiting for me when I got home!

My theory is to spend as much time as possible at Hardly Strictly. It’s impossible to see everything you want. Most of the time the bands you hear can just be a matter of chance. It’s more laid back early Saturday. The weather is gray and overcast for about the first hour. The rest of the day is sunny and clear.

I go to The Rooster to pay tribute to the man picking up the tab, Warren Hellman. He’s with his band The Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Before any music a few lines of a Hazel Dickens song are recited over the PA. Hellman talks about “the genesis of the festival.” Hazel had been a big inspiration and one of the first big names to play the festival. She talked others into playing it. Hellman and Ron Thomason play “The Mannington Mine” to honor Hazel.

Hellman says he’s in a Bluegrass support group called “The Wet Twig Arsonists.”

The Wronglers play a spirited set, but do sound a bit ragged at times. Hellman wore the big Star of David jacket again. “That’s why they call me the Rhinestone Jew Boy.”

“Brown’s Ferry Blues” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”

I can hear a little music and crowd sounds from The Banjo Stage. Someone is tearing it up over there. (It was Greensky Bluegrass.) I’ve seen The Wronglers before and wanted to wander before the hordes arrived.

Near the Porch stage there is a tent with a tribute to Hazel Dickens. You can leave a message for Hazel. There are pictures of her through the years.

The Porch Stage is the smallest stage. The acts aren’t the big names of the festival and that gives the area a much more laid back atmosphere. This stage alone would make a great festival.

River Whyless was playing their last song as I arrived. “Still As Empty.” Good fiddle player. They come from Asheville, North Carolina.

The plan was to see Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard later, so I knew I would wind up at The Star Stage. I wandered that way. It would be a matter of chance what I saw on the way. I stopped at The Banjo Stage to see the Alison Brown Quartet. They started with two instrumentals, the second one was “The Road West.”

Brown tells the crowd that she’s a “reformed investment banker.” She worked for Smith Barney in San Francisco. She would read the magazine Bluegrass Unlimited at work. “They thought I was reading about how to refund bond issues.” Eventually she got the guts to quit her day job. It was more of a Jazz sound happening here. I went way in the back and listened to “Hungaria” written by Django Rhinehardt.

It’s hard to believe this is the same stage I was at last night. It’s nowhere near the scene of Friday night, not yet anyway. It’s nice to hang out in the back without people jostling for position.

The next stage is The Arrow and I saw The Band of Heathens. They’re another band of young Rockers. I had just seen them on TV on Austin City Limits. “You Come To Me In Times of Need.” They play a song dedicated to Hunter S. Thompson, “L.A. County Blues.” “Hey Rider.”

There were some performers from past Festivals that weren’t here this year. No Elvis Costello, T. Bone Burnett, Dave Alvin. It was surprising. How could you miss this?

I arrived at The Star Stage. There was already a huge crowd there, and I set up blankie way in the back. Everyone is watching the same movie.

While waiting I saw Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Another good young band I wouldn’t have seen if not for this event. “One of My Friends Has Taken You In and Given you Cocaine.” During the song “You Want To Try Don’t You?” they broke into the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.”

Kathy caught part of Hugh Laurie at The Towers of Gold before meeting me.

Most people aren’t too dressed up. Sooner or later you’re sitting on the ground. Some people do dress up. It’s crowded, but it makes for great people watching. It’s quite a parade. There’s the relentless Frank Chu, carrying his protest sing. There are other regulars on the circuit. Glitter Guy. Dancing guy. One guy had a bright green greaser wig. His clothes were green and resembled vegetation. His jacket said he was: The Frondz. There were the usual vendors of baked goods, buds and beers. I saw a guy in a Slayer tee shirt. It made me wonder how long it would be before they played the Festival.

There were onstage announcements: “We don’t smoke tobacco in San Francisco. If you smoke the other stuff be considerate of your neighbors.”

We knew Kris Kristofferson on the same stage with Merle Haggard would draw an enormous crowd. I had sworn I wouldn’t go to another one of these at Hardly Strictly. The huge names like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton or Steve Martin drew crowds that were just too big, even for Golden Gate Park. But this one had an aura of history about it. These guys weren’t going to be around long. The last of The Outlaws. Veteran music fan and buddy Van joins us.

Kris Kristofferson came onstage first. “Shipwrecked in the 80s” Kristofferson introduced Merle Haggard as “The best song writer since Hank Williams.” “Pancho and Lefty” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here Tonight” and the big one: “Me and Bobby McGee.” After the line, “Feeling good enough was good enough for me... Me and Bobby McGee,” Kristofferson yells, “Janis!”

“Big City”

The crowd situation was ridiculous. We were far in the back and it reminded me of a caricature of a Sixties Rock show. It was a huge crowd that couldn’t see and at times could barely hear what was going on with the little dots onstage. They cranked up the volume on “Folsom Prison Blues” “Silver Threads” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” “Mama Tried.” “I turned twenty one in prison doing life without parole!” “I Married Me a Hippie.” They do a couple of quiet songs that are inaudible with the crowd noise.

A Kris Kristofferson solo song: “He’s a walking contradiction...”

Then a Rocker “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and a new song: “Working in Tennessee.” “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

“Here’s a song in honor of the marijuana capital of the world!” Merle says that when you’re seventy, “You should be able to smoke whatever you want... and drive on the wrong side of the road.” The first gets a roar from the crowd, but allowing anyone to drive on the wrong side of the road is not as well accepted. It’s “Okie from Muskogee!” The crowd loves this one, especially the lines, “We get drunk like God wants us to!” and “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.”

They take it down a bit for the finish with “Lord Help Me Jesus.” The band plays the theme from “Okie from Muskogee” as they leave the stage. Merle says, “Thank you for your time.”

I considered wandering to the next stage, The Towers of Gold, but one look at the mass of humanity and I declined. Even last year this would have been easy. Now, it’s better to just stay put. People were leaving The Star Stage for other stages and we were able to upgrade our spot. Irma Thomas would be next. She would finish at 5:40. That would give us time to at least take a look at the other stages on our way out.

At almost every stage a performer would announce that this is “the greatest music festival in the world.” Some say, “Let’s make it bigger!” Van made a good point: It will get bigger. It’s viral now. I don’t try to talk people into going anymore.

Irma Thomas, “The Queen of Soul.” The band plays Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as an intro number. Irma comes out in powerful voice, “Love Don’t Change, People Do” “Let It Be Me” “You Got to Bring It With You” “In the Middle of It All” “You Can Have My Husband, But Don’t Mess With My Man” “Hip Shaking Mama” “I’ll Never Break Away From You.” A big hit in 1963!

The crowd is buzzing, standing and dancing.

“Come Back” 1961. “True Love (is like a chunk of gold.)” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”

It’s been a hell of an R&B show. Irma says she always has time to take requests from the audience and does two songs someone up front asks for: “Just Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and “Please Please Please” “It’s Raining So Hard.”

Irma is a spokeswoman for breast cancer and informs us that we’ve all been “pinked.” “Done Got Over” “Iko Iko” with the crowd waving handkerchiefs in time.

“Time Is On My Side.” “I did it before them. They just made all the money on it.” She doesn’t specify who “They” are. Irma was irked when The Rolling Stones recorded it very shortly after she did and knocked it off the charts.

She finishes with the Tina Turner song “Simply the Best.” The live version recorded at Slim’s won a Grammy. I’m glad I didn’t miss this old fashioned rocking Rhythm and Blues show!

It was about 5:40 and time for the last acts of the day. Three stages would have Hardly Strictly stalwarts playing at the same time. What do you do? But what a choice: Robert Earl Keen, The Flatlanders or Steve Earle. An unlikely performer at Hardly Strictly was Buckethead. He was at the next stage, The Towers of Gold. Buckethead is a Heavy Metal “shred” guitar player who plays with an empty bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on his head and an eerie mask. I was curious, but one look at the crowd streaming that way and we headed east.

We went back to The Banjo and stood in the back for a couple of Steve Earle songs. “Devil Left Behind” Through the binoculars I could see a sign onstage: “Take It Back: Tax Wall Street.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined him onstage. The crowd was just too massive. Onstage Steve Earle told the crowd that he would be at the merchandise tent after the show. I could only imagine what that scene would be like.

Arrow Stage. The Flatlanders featuring Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Butch Hancock. The Arrow Stage has more room and we went around to the left and weren’t that far away from the stage. “Until I Make Up My Mind” “Midnight Train” “Right Where I Belong” “Man on a Pilgrimage”

Jimmie Dale Gilmore says this next one is the song that started the conversation with Warren Hellman that resulted in Hardly Strictly. “Would You Love Me If I Wandered Back?” “The Highway Is My Life.”

We left to see the end of Robert Earl Keen and complete what we could of the trifecta. We did catch at least a glimpse of the last three acts. Keen was at The Rooster Stage, which was on our way out anyway. We caught the Grateful Dead sounds of the old song “U.S. Blues.” It was Saturday night and a barn dance broke out during “The Highway Goes On Forever and The Party Never Stops.”

This was our first Hardly Strictly since we moved into the neighborhood. It was great to just walk home. We were home by 7:30.

Sunday. I leave early again. Near the park I see a perched Sharp Shinned Hawk. The hawks really don’t seem bothered by the huge human presence in the park. I start the day at The Banjo Stage with Dry Branch Fire Squad. The crowd is gathering, but it’s still early, 11 a.m.

The tribute to Hazel Dickens is repeated. Warren Hellman and Ron Thomason come out and sing “The Mannington Mine.” Hellman talks about how the festival started. Some firemen gave him a CD after “a successful political campaign.” Hellman got hooked on Bluegrass. Hazel Dickens was the first “big” star he talked into playing the festival and she talked others into joining. I remember seeing her at the second Hardly Strictly. There were 30,000 people at the Festival that year.

I’d seen Dry Branch Fire Squad before at Hardly Strictly. I love the comic dead pan delivery of their singer and MC, Ron Thomason. “This is the strictly Bluegrass part of the show.”

Warren Hellman joins to do a Doc Watson song. Ron Thomason tells us that Doc Watson invented a new way to play the guitar just for this song. Warren Hellman will play the banjo part. The pressure is on. “This is my favorite jam with this band,” he tells us.

“Can You Be Mine” “Bar Room Jack” “Looking For a Stone.”

Thomason tells us they were discovered by Allan Lomax, “The great ethnomusicologist.” Lomax wanted them to play at the Smithsonian Folk Festival. At first, they couldn’t figure out where Smithson was, and thought it must probably be somewhere in Kentucky. They were excited to learn they would be going to Washington, D.C. They didn’t know why Lomax wanted them to play there, “We don’t know any Folk songs.” Lomax assured them that they did know Folk songs. This was puzzling. “How could he know that we knew something that we didn’t know?”

The band was treated to a tour of the Smithsonian. They were amazed by the dinosaurs and were shown a diorama of Australopithecus cavemen. They noticed that the cavemen had shrewdly put a light bulb in their camp fire. “You’ve seen it too, right?”

“You Gambled Your Last Game” “Cries on Echo Mountain.”

Dry Branch Fire Squad recorded with Hazel Dickens including “Blood of Jesus.” She said she would sing on the record under one condition: “You don’t hold back.” Thomason speaks in a Southern drawl, “I’m not talking too fast for you, am I?”

Ron Aldridge joined them to play mandolin. “He didn’t bring his own,” so he’ll use Thomason’s 1923 model. Thomason traded an apartment house for it. When she heard about it, Hazel called him stupid. Why? Thomason wondered. Hazel told him, “You’ll never take it out and play it.”

They finish with a great Bluegrass version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home.”

Disk jockeys from KPFA, and KPIG served as MCs. After the set the MC asked the crowd, “Who would have thought that we’d get a capitalist to do a union song?” (“Mannington Mines”) Warren Hellman was a capitalist with a heart. “The problem has been capitalism without a heart! Warren Hellman is the patron saint of San Francisco!”

I went to The Arrow to hear the psychedelic sounds of Moonalice. Dark Star Orchestra would do the last set here today. The tribes were already gathering. “We made it to harvest time,” the MC boomed from onstage before the set. “It’s time to harvest the grapes ... and the marijuana!” Moonalice recreates the sounds of Sixties San Francisco. It’s a real time trip here in Golden Gate Park. Unfortunately, it appears former Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Cassady is no longer in the band. I hung out way in the back and stretched out. There was still a lot of room here. I did listen to some songs, but it was time to move on for Buddy Miller. There is still a way to do this festival.

The Towers of Gold Stage is the last stage. It’s the stage that is the farthest west in the park. I got an all right spot to the right. It was still early. We could hear some of another act called The Low Anthem coming from The Star Stage. The two stages alternated acts. It was funny to see Buddy Miller and band onstage waiting for The Low Anthem to end.

“Dearly Departed” For the first two songs the band is guitar, bass and concertina. “Nothing To Do” “Baby Baby Baby” Patti Griffin, the drummer (Dickinson) and another guitar player join for “Gasoline and Matches.” Griffin again takes the spotlight for “Shelter Me Lord.”

“All My Tears Washed Away” or “Don’t Matter Where You Bury Me.”

It’s expected that Robert Plant will make a cameo. He praises Patti Griffin. He’s been “doing this for a long time,” and he’s still learning from other singers, especially Patti Griffin. He’s learned restraint and patience from her. “Sea of Heartbreak.” He has a sheet with the lyrics that he places on the stage and sneaks a peek at once in a while. He looks uncomfortable. Was it from doing an unfamiliar old tune? Plant called for the bridge.

He leaves after one song. The crowd wanted Plant to Rock out, but I think he didn’t want to take the spotlight from Buddy. “Buddy Miller is the man who saved my legitimate career.” Plant had also did a cameo at Patti Griffin’s set on Saturday at The Rooster Stage.

“No Way, Go Away” Rocker.

The darling of Hardly Strictly, Emmy Lou Harris, guested for two songs. “We’re going to do a Porter Waggoner, Dolly Parton song,” “Burning The Midnight Oil. She also sings “Wide River to Cross.” The crowds are still manageable at this point.

“Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” “Take Me Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”

The only plan we had for today is to see Devotchka. We knew friends of ours, Joe and Carole Tuminello would be there. The singer is Joe’s nephew and they get the Friends and Family pass. We certainly knew how bad the crowds would be and we were content to slow down. We’d hang at The Star Stage for a while. Dr. John & The Lower 911 would be playing there first.

Dr. John opened one of the first “big” shows I ever went to, so there was a big nostalgia factor here for me. By the time we got there the place was jammed, so we sat on the side under some trees with no stage view at all. I walked around a bit to at least get a glimpse of the man, but for the most part we stayed put.

Dr. John: “Down By the Riverside” “St. James Infirmary” “I Want to Shoot My Buddy” “I’ve Been Hoo-Dooed.” “Gris Gris John,” and of course, “Right Place, Wrong Time.” “Going Down to Georgia” There was a teaser of “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Iko Iko.”

People left after Dr. John to see other acts. We moved up. We’d seen Devotchka at The Independent a couple of years ago. We were on the guest list and everything. We knew they would draw many young fans. The scene was similar to Friday. People kept jamming into the glen. You just have to wait until it starts and everybody stands up.

Devotchka is a strange band that includes accordion and tuba. They play a wide variety of music that they’ve made their own. Great vocals by Nick. They are loud enough to be heard over the partying crowd. Songs include: “The Enemy Guns” “How It Ends” “Such a Lovely Thing” I know they’ve had big shows before, but it had to be a special afternoon for them. It was another great moment at Hardly Strictly.

Devotchka ended at 4:00 and we went to The Banjo for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. This was the real Bluegrass deal. We see them almost every year. We walked up behind the sound tent. It’s a partially obstructed view.

We walk up during “It Takes a Worried Man” “Man of Constant Sorrow” “A Little Boy Called Joe” “Clinch Mountain Back Step”

“Oh Death” The rest of the band leaves Ralph Stanley alone onstage. He sings solo. It’s powerful enough that the crowd is respectfully silent. This guy looks like he’s a lot closer to the end than we are.

“I Wish I’d Been There When She Was a Girl” “John Henry” “Right Strangers” “Run Molly Run” “Glory Land” “Long Black Veil” “Going Down the Mountain” “Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” “White Dove” “Orange Blossom Special”

This is what Hardly Strictly is all about. It’s great to see new acts, but this is the real deal. The passing of Hazel reminds us. Many of these Bluegrass legends won’t be around too much longer.

Ralph Stanley announced that there would be a Stanley family Bluegrass Festival in Virginia over Memorial Day weekend. “We came out to see you so ...”

The tarp situation is better this year. Maybe it’s because people can’t wander around as easily, but there weren’t areas of empty tarps in front while people were jammed together in the back.

Dark Star Orchestra. A Deadhead scene to end the day. I never saw Speedway Meadow so full of people. We were in the back. During the day this area had been a Frisbee field. It wasn’t packed in the back, but it was amazing to see how many people were there. There were some vintage Deadheads in attendance, but most of the crowd looked too young to have ever seen The Dead Live.

The fog and wind started to arrive, so we started to make our way home. We caught a little of The Jayhawks at The Rooster on the way out. “So Far Away.”

It was a marathon weekend. We really pour it on for this, because we see so many acts for free. There are still ways to enjoy this festival, especially if you go early and do some planning.

I’ve been viewing Youtube clips of Hardly Strictly. Some are bad, but many are very good. The good clips are a bit deceiving. I imagine fans across the country seeing these close up clips and saying “Next year we have to go.” Most don’t realize that even showing up early is no guarantee that you’ll see anything more than dots onstage.

We kept using the line from gangster shows and movies. “It is what it is.” It’s a free event, with all that goes with that. The lineup is incredible. The crowd is massive, but largely well behaved. It’s worth it. Thanks to Warren Hellman, who makes it all possible.

There’s a new Blogger in town. Check out Kathy’s description of the weekend at:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ry Cooder at The Great American Music Hall

Kathy had found us free tickets for some great events, but she was more than willing to pay for this one. Ry Cooder would play two rare live shows at The Great American Music Hall. The tickets were a bargain at $25. Ry Cooder rarely plays live. Tickets sold out almost immediately.

Interviewed for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Cooder insisted that the shows would be a “one off.” The band would feature ten horns and that would make it hard to tour. Cooder admitted he doesn’t like to tour anyway. The show would be at The Great American Music hall a historic, but small venue. There wouldn’t be many tickets around.

I had my doubts about finding any tickets for this one. Sure, I wanted to see him too. Here’s a guy who was in The Magic Band with Captain Beefheart and recorded with The Rolling Stones. I didn’t want to discourage her, but I pointed out the odds. This would be a tough ticket to get.

Kathy has been a Ry Cooder fan for years. She scoured Craigslist. Buyers outnumbered sellers ten to one. There were desperate, pleading buyers. It wasn’t looking good.

On the day before the show she got a response. A woman had to sell two tickets. It’s funny how it worked out. The seller felt more comfortable dealing with another woman, especially when it came to meeting somewhere to do the transaction. Could Kathy meet her the afternoon of the show? Kathy had done it again. We were going to the Big Rock Show!

There was a bit of a wait to get in, but few seemed to mind. Most of this crowd were long time hard core Ry Cooder fans. There was a real cult atmosphere. Tonight would be special. The Chronicle said fans came from across the country to see this one. Everyone was pumped up. Well, as pumped up as we get now. Aging Baby Boomers stood on the main floor waiting, just like they used to years ago. It was a geriatric mosh pit, but there wouldn’t be any crashing bodies tonight.

The Great American Music Hall opened after the 1906 Earthquake. It was the home of wild times in the Barbary Coast days. It was a fancy restaurant and bordello that was the place to be seen in San Francisco. Sally Rand took it over in The Thirties and did her Fan Dance there. It was largely abandoned in the Sixties, but resurrected in the Seventies when it reopened as a Rock Hall. Stepping inside is a look at another time. Tall columns and the balcony are covered in ornate Baroque decoration. There are gilded mirrors and chandeliers. From the balcony we got a great look at the frescoes on the ceiling. Late night staff at the Great American Music Hall have reported strange ghosty sounds and appearances in the club after closing.

Sometimes they set up tables and chairs on the main floor, making it a nightclub setting. We knew this wouldn’t happen tonight. It was going to be a “stander.” We went upstairs to conserve energy. Kathy checked her coat, and at her insistence we looked around. A young staff member said he had two chairs left. They would not be next to the rail with a view of the stage, but they were chairs.

The opening band was Les Cenzontles. (The Mockingbirds) They were a rocking Salsa band and sounded great. They were clearly thrilled to be opening on this night for Ry. The crowd was appreciative, but I think everyone was psyched and waiting for the main act. The sound was great.

The Great American Music Hall offers dinner tickets. They were unavailable to us with the tickets Kathy got, but we’ve done it in the past. The food is pub grub. The service is horrible. You begin to wonder if it will ever arrive. The staff is just spread too thin with too much to do. The trade off is that you’re guaranteed a seat somewhere. When they use the nightclub setup you’re close to the front of the stage.

I’m not going to try to relate even the highlights of Ry Cooder’s career or what a force he’s been in music over the years. He practically invented Americana Roots Music. Late in his career he helped popularize Cuban music with his hit record The Buena Vista Social Club.

He recorded with The Rolling Stones on the “Let It Bleed” album. He was considered as a replacement for Brian Jones. He felt The Stones borrowed a bit too much from him, especially on “Gimmie Shelter.” He thought it was enough to get a song writing credit, but of course, The Stones weren’t going to pay.

Cooder and the band took the stage. He looked old with white hair, but most of the crowd looked like that. This was his crowd tonight. There were cheers and hoots when he took the stage.

Most of these song titles are from Kathy. He started with an old song, “Crazy About an Automobile.” We could see over the rail upstairs. Once in a while I wandered downstairs to get the back of the hall view. The crowd was largely male, and it seemed like half of them were over six foot five. The stage is set low at The Great American Music Hall, so even I had a hard time seeing, but it wasn’t about seeing tonight. It was about hearing.

The gig was to publicize Cooder’s new release “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down.” We heard “Lord Tell Me Why (White Man Ain’t Worth Nothing)” from the new CD.

“Boomer’s Story.”

“Why Don’t You Try Me Tonight?” Kathy notes that Cooder sings this one with fiendish glee.

The rest of the band: Ry’s son, Joachim Cooder is on drums. A young, slacker looking Robert Francis is on bass. Terry Evans and Arnold McCuller help with the singing.

Ry goes on a mini rant about Republicans. He’s certainly talking to the right crowd tonight. Cooder has always had a political edge, but “Pull Up Some Dust” is the most political Cooder has ever been. They play “If There Is a God” from the new CD.

It’s already a special night when Flaco Jiminez joins the band. We’re in the presence of an accordion legend. Ry tells us that, “Playing the accordion is a young man’s game.” “The Do Re Mi Song.”

“This is a Gentlemen Jim Reeves song,” Ry tells us. “He’ll Have To Go.”

“School Is Out.” (Not the Alice Cooper song.)

“At the Dark End of the Street.”

Cooder mentions the new CD. He says that the powers that be want him to push it. Cooder does have a wry, sarcastic sense of humor, and he teases the crowd sometimes. He’s going to play “another bitter little song,” “Corrida de Jesse James.” Jessie James is in heaven and he’s disgusted by the bailouts handed out to the banks. “Give me back my trusty .44 and I’ll take care of it.” It’s a big crowd favorite. Jessie learns things have changed. The horns join in. The stage is too crowded and they play from the balcony. How did Jessie James get into heaven anyway?

Cooder really throws us a curveball with the Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs hit, “Wooly Bully.” It’s a rocker that adds a little levity to the evening. It even has a tuba solo!

I vaguely remembered Cooder’s brief stint with Captain Beefheart. It came to an abrupt end. Was it because of Beefheart’s autocratic ways of running a band? A Wikipedia search reminded me of a more interesting story.

Cooder may have been frustrated by The Captain’s bizarre management techniques, but it all came to a head at a Rock festival held on Mt. Tamalpais in 1967. This was before The Monterey Pop Festival. Beefheart had been acting erratically and using LSD. He froze up during the band’s performance and wound up falling off the stage. He later said he saw a young woman in the crowd turning into a fish. Cooder immediately quit the band. Promoters became leery of Beefheart. If Beefheart and The Magic Band had performed later at Monterey history could have been different, especially if they got into the movie.

Cooder is joined onstage by Juliette Commagere for a Spanish ballad.

“No Banker Left Behind.”

The band leaves the stage, but it’s obvious there’s more to come. Ry says that, “Tonight we’re going to do the encore backwards.” They put new life into “Goodnight Irene.” Ry says he’s playing his 1937 Rickenbacker. “It blew up my 1942 amp.”

The show finishes with a gripping “Vigilante Man.” Cooder lets it rip on slide guitar. This is really what everyone came to hear. No one can play it like he does.