Friday, October 25, 2013

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013.
The weather forecast for the weekend of the 2013 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival sounded great. It would be a San Francisco Indian summer weekend. Sunny and clear. This was good news, but it also meant more of the casual fans would be showing up this weekend. People seemed to be more courteous in the last couple of years, especially about using cell phones. There’s no way around it. It’s going to be crowded. 
Maybe HSB is too big now, but does have a variety of acts. So, you can find your own level, if you’re careful. You go to ten or eleven of these things and you pick up a few tricks. It will still be crowded and there are still people who show up who are clueless, but it’s still an amazing event.   
I was able to spend most of the weekend there again this year. It’s expensive to see any live music these days. I planned to go early and see as many bands as possible for free. Stage hopping is possible on Friday or the very early going on Saturday and Sunday. There was another great list of performers this year, but we’ve learned that you can’t see most of them. You can plan, but much of what we see is still left to chance. There were a couple of things that happened Sunday that put a different perspective on this year’s event.
Many song titles are approximations. Not every song is listed. This is a bit long, but it is a massive event.   

Friday. October 4.
I arrived in time to hear the end of the school kids program. So MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” was the first song I heard at HSB 13. A field full of school kids bouncing to Rap music is an awesome spectacle.
The opening acts started at noon. There are three stages on Friday. (Six on Saturday and Sunday!) I headed to the Banjo Stage for Jesse Dee. The biography on the web site said he recreates the sound of classic R&B. He has a laid back R&B sound with a horn section. It was a nice start to HSB.
Jesse Dee. “You Can Count on Me” “I Won’t Forget About You” Title track from new CD: “On My Mind, In My Heart.” “Fussing and Fighting” “It’s Gonna Be All Right” “Close To Me” 
If you want to avoid the huge crowds, early Friday is the time to go. It’s relatively easy to bounce from the Banjo to Arrow Stages. So, I went over to see Manchester Orchestra.
Manchester Orchestra were three young guys. Two guitars and a synthesizer. All three songs I heard were about or mentioned death. They did a mournful version of “The Party’s Over.” They turned the song Dandy Don Meredith sang on Monday Night Football into a dirge. The last line of each chorus was something like, “And the shit starts all over again.” Just so there’s no shred of anything positive. 
“When I Pass Over” “Mean Everything to Nothing” 
Their sound was interesting. Synthesizer. Not a great discovery, but an interesting diversion.   
I went back for the Soul finale of Jesse Dee. Jesse DeNatale was next. He was from Sonoma, so I thought I’d check him out. While I’m waiting I found a spot in the shade on a huge log. A small group was sitting on it. An Asian guy strummed a ukulele. A young woman with a camera and notebook walked up to him and started asking him questions. How long had Steve been playing ukulele. “How do you spell ukulele?” No one on the log really knew, except Steve. I doubted she was a reporter, but the next day had a picture of the guy and a few other people on the log. I was just cut out of the picture. I guess that showed me!  
A Great Blue Heron flew past the back of The Banjo Stage. It was a reminder that we are in the Golden Gate Park ecosystem. Sometimes we take the park for granted. It’s a constant green backdrop to the weekend’s proceedings.  
  The MC welcomed all the federal employees that were here enjoying “their sequester day off.” Jesse DeNatale had a good band and he’s an eccentric songwriter. “Besides You” “Skip To My Lou” “This song takes place in San Francisco.” “Watch the Next Day Turn” I walked up behind the soundboard for a closer look and got caught between two pairs of people gabbing, oblivious to the music. They were yelling over the music to tell their boring stories. The first obnoxious people of this HSB. Soon there would be thousands more. DeNatale played an ode to Oscar Grant. I headed to The Arrow stage to see what Freakwater was about. 
Most of the members of Freakwater are women. They played a song about whiskey not being evil. Through the binoculars I could see that the male bass player with greased back hair was smoking a cigarette. Every day started with an announcement that NO tobacco smoking was allowed in the park. This is largely ignored, apparently even onstage. The women sang great harmonies and the crowd stirred for the first time today. People danced in an area in front of the stage. I noticed a sign up there: “HSB Pit Pass Required.”   
I’d heard of The Felice Brothers, so I went over to The Rooster Stage. I usually use a trail that goes along a hill to stage left. This was blocked by cyclone fences. This was one of my favorite spots and is among the first spots I ever heard live music in the park. To get to that side of the stage you now have to go through the crowd in the meadow. Eventually a trail takes you up the side of the hill, but there’s not as much room up there as years past.
I didn’t realize how popular The Felice Brothers were or I would have passed. I did get up the hill on the side of the stage and found a small spot. People kept pouring in. This was the first major migration of this year’s HSB.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” “Give Me One More Night” “Shot Me Down” 
It was a young crowd. Conor Oberst would end the day here. The other acts at The Rooster Stage would be “friends” of Conor Oberst. It was already crowded. Some women had their nightclub clothes on. Cocktail dresses and even high heels. They staggered through the crowd. It was strange to see this out in the park. Most of the crowd were older and in more reasonable outdoor clothes. 
A group next to me were from Down Under. The girls looked like they were going to a fashion shoot. Their chatter was somewhat amusing. “Are we all from New Zealand?” A Kiwi bombshell opened a sparkling water and sprayed me and the next group of people. She was apologetic. It was only water.
The Felice Brothers had a mix of New Orleans and Celtic going. There was great accordion. This was a party band. I’m glad I got to see them, but I’d be more careful for the rest of the weekend.     
I looked around late in their set and realized that NO ONE around me was listening. Most were talking. It was a huge pick up bar. It was like a fern bar in the Seventies. Whatever. Maybe that is what it’s all about.  
HSB draws groups of street kids. I call them the tribe. Many come from the Haight. They’re filthy and dressed in rags. It’s almost a uniform. Patches on patches.  They’re living the Sixties dream, or nightmare. A group of them with pit bulls barged their way through the crowd. They reminded me of bikers. No one could or would call them out. They had pit bulls. 
I went back to the fringe of the crowd at The Arrow Stage to see Low. There was plenty of room to spread out. They did play Bluegrass songs, but they were done in a grungy almost psychedelic way. Their song “Witches” could have come off of Black Sabbath’s first album. On one song they just blasted feedback. It was a white noise version of “Happy Birthday.”  
A scary looking Hippie Mama danced near the back of the crowd. Every once in a while she held a yoga pose. Later she was cracking the backs of young people who passed by. Looked like she could be an original from the Summer of Love.    
“Dinosaur Act” 
A young woman had a map of the world on her back. All seven continents. She looked a bit confused when someone asked, “Can I take a picture?” Of the tattoo. Oh yeah, sure. 
It was back to the Banjo Stage to wait for the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. I took the last seat at a picnic table in the back. It was a minor luxury. There was a small group from out of town. They said someone suggested they check out HSB. They couldn’t believe it. “What is Bluegrass music anyway?” They carefully smoked a joint. “There’s a cop right over there!” One of the locals told them not to worry about it. Then Glitterman joined us. 
Glitterman shows up at most of the big local events. He’s covered in head to toe in a glitter costume, including glitter shoes that make him look taller. A glitter mask comes to a point over his head. He has a microphone that distorts his voice. He wanders the crowd and people love to get a picture with him. He solicits donations to pose with people.  
“Can I join you? I need to take a break.” He took off his mask. “I didn’t know it was a mask,” someone cracked. Glitterman is a bald guy. I’ll guess 55. “That’s right! I’m old!” Glitterman said he donates some of the money to an organization that helps homeless youth. While we were sitting there people came by and thanked him for “What you’re doing.” Including one guy in total cowboy regalia. He had a replica Colt in a holster. At least I think it was a replica.
“The younger generation has no shame,” he told us. Young women will grab him in intimate places. He admits that, “They’re not as interested if they see me with my mask off.” Glitterman sees people from all over the world. We were surprised to hear he likes Americans the best. “They all have a sense of humor.” Glitterman says American culture is the best!   
He’s another in the long line of San Francisco eccentrics. It’s a unique, twisted form of celebrity. I felt like I was hanging out with Bushman or the modern Emperor Norton. It was time for Glitterman to get back to work. Walking back into the crowd he yelled: “They told us LSD was bad for us!”  
The MC said that we might notice that it’s “kind of smoky.” He informed us there was a fire in Napa. “Details are sketchy.” (There was a wildfire, but it wasn’t in Napa.)  
Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. I finally spread the blanket far from the stage. It was now 4:00. This was traditional Bluegrass. They started with a lengthy instrumental and got loose. The sound reminded me of Old and In the Way.    
Usually there’s another set of speakers set up in the crowd. They weren’t using them this year. I’m not sure if this is an attempt to keep the neighbors happy, but those of us in the back missed those speakers.  
The tribe had taken over a shaded area under a large oak tree in the back of the Banjo stage. The street kids huddled under the protection of the tree. I’m not sure what was going on in there under the relative cover. Later, we did see two people getting busted there by large men in civilian clothes and prominent badges. The next day cyclone fences surrounded the tree and kept people out. The party was over in there. 
Peter Rowan: “Drop The Bone” “Ragged Old Dream” 
  Bonnie Raitt was the main draw of the day. The hordes kept coming. Kathy met me and we were content to hang in the back. Raitt is great and it’s a treat to see her for free. “Let’s Give Them something to Talk About.” After “Angel From Montgomery” she said, “No more Misses Nice Guy,” and ripped some great slide guitar. 
Raitt: “Here’s a Paul Gray song. It’s how not to get famous in show business.” “Are You Ready for the Thing Called Love?” Mike Finnegan joins for Blues song. 
We headed for home. 

Saturday. October 5. 
I pushed myself to get out there for the 11:00 start. We’re about a half hour walk from the park. I headed to The Rooster for another Warren Hellman tribute: The Go To Hell Man Clan. 
Before they started the MC made his announcements, including that any tarp spread out and left for more than an hour would be removed. People would spread out tarps, leave for hours and come back for the main act. Now, it’s not only discouraged, but is an official no-no. People still insist on bringing those tall lawn chairs. 
The Go To Hell Man Clan was like a Hellman family picnic, and why not. They are picking up the tab. Most of the musicians were from Hellman’s band The Wronglers. “Don’t You Ever Let No Woman Rule Your Mind.” Hellman’s daughter says her mother is an invalid now with Alzheimer’s. She sings her mother’s favorite, “Pawn My Gold Watch and Chain.” Warren’s banjo teacher does the first song Warren played on banjo. 
“Gotta Travel” “I’ve laid around and played around this old town too long ... Summer’s almost gone.”
“Streets of Laredo” Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad joins. Jimmy Dale Gilmore sang “Jackson” with Warren’s daughter, Olivia Hellman. “We got married in a fever!” Gilmore looks ancient. One of the daughters tells us that Hellman studied the Torah for years. Hallelujah means “sing together.” The daughters sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Steve Earle plays “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.” 
It was early, but I cut to The Banjo Stage. This meant missing Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, but I had seen them last year. (There are tough choices at HSB.) Today I would set up early and try to stay out of the crowds. I got a spot on the hill pretty far back, but we would still be able to see better. Our plan was to stay and see “Holler Down the Hollow: A Salute to the Masters” and then the next act, The Jerry Douglas Band. 
Every year I see Allison Brown without planning to. The band has a mellow, jazz like sound. It’s perfect for the early crowd. “Smarty Grass” she called it at one point. Brown is a former portfolio manager who left the world of financial services in a gamble that she could make it in the music business. She also runs Compass Records with her husband. 
Tyson Rogers is outstanding on piano. “Sally Ann” 
The next act was Tim O’Brien with Bryan Sutton & Mike Bub. “Get Out There and Dance” “Here’s one from my favorite Bluegrass singer, Bob Dylan.” I ‘think it was “Lay Down Your Weary Tune. “That was the shorter version,” O’Brien told us.  
O’Brien comments on the weather. It’s another nearly perfect day. “It’s better than not being able to see you through the fog ... There seems to be a lot of fog inducer out there.”
From the new album Chicken and Eggs. “One More Day” “Hear That Whistle Blow” 
O’Brien asks the crowd, “Have you ever heard of Woody Guthrie?” “Woody’s Dream” Then a song about an Italian vegetable vendor. “I Got Potatoes.” “Hangman’s Rag” 
It was hard to hear at times and I noticed the sound crew looked to be struggling, especially at the beginning of acts.
We did get some unexpected shade from nearby trees. It was a big relief from the sun. I only wandered from the spot once for a walk. Lines for the port-a-potties were long. I went all the way to the back of the Star Stage to use the facilities. It was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen there, and it was still early. The bathroom situation was ridiculous, so I made a policy decision: no alcohol. It was readily available from local entrepreneurs, but it just wasn’t worth the ordeal of finding and waiting for bathrooms.  
It had taken me a while to navigate the crowd, so I cut up a hill to a trail that paralleled the crowd at The Star Stage. Seeing the crowd from above was impressive. It really did look like a biblical Woodstock down there, and this was only one stage.   
We were near the back, but we could see with binoculars. This year there is an HSB app. Kathy texted a friend who said she wasn’t going this year, but she would watch it streaming online. I was going to ask her to tell us what was going on onstage. Eventually we can just sit in the back of the crowd and watch the action from onstage on a cell phone.
Next at The Banjo Stage was Holler Down the Hollow: A Hardly Strictly Salute to the Masters. It’s a tribute to some of the artists that helped start HSB: Warren Hellman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. “Gentle On My Mind” A version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Jim Lauderdale joins for “The Race Is On ... The winner loses all.” He makes a crack about Rush Limbaugh. “You’re Running Wild” Buddy Miller plays on one song. 
Jerry Douglas joins for “Rock Bottom.” Emmy Lou Harris comes onstage for “Salvation.” “Oh My Darling.” Emmy Lou is the darling of HSB. The crowd always gets excited when she makes a surprise appearance. Steve Earle joins for a railroad song,  and “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.” Some song lyrics were changed to pay tribute to “The Masters.” 
They do an encore: “Looks Like Rain”  
No Blue Angels this year. No booming jets buzzing us.  
Jerry Douglas Band was on next. I had found them while wandering around last year. Boz Scaggs would be playing at The Star Stage and we could hear people planning to head there. Tempting, but we stayed put. Douglas is the maestro of the dobro. He starts by saying he wants to adopt Coco Crisp’s name. He’s an A’s fan! 
They start with a long instrumental. It sounds Sixties psychedelic. 
  “All Mussed Up” “Senia’s Lament” A long jam with Norwegian Wood in it.
I see a guy in a Pink Panther costume. He’s climbing a tree. There’s a million stories at HSB. This guy in a Pink Panter costume is just one of them.    
Allison Krause joins. “My Guilty Heart is in Shame” “You Watch Me Walk Away” Great singing on this ballad. Then an odd song for HSB, but perfect for San Francisco: Thelma Houston’s Disco hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Many in the crowd get up and dust off old Disco moves. Last song: “Good Bye and So Long To You.” 
The first Frank Chu sighting of the weekend. He was wandering the crowd with his sign warning of intergalactic injustices. 
Most of the festival is eventually covered by a cloud of dust kicked up by the huge crowd.  
Steve Earle and the Dukes. We’ve heard Steve Earle at HSB before, but we usually wind up way in the back. This time we were able to see better. We still debated seeing one of the other big acts closing today’s festival, but decided to just stay. “The Low Highway” “Twenty First  Century Blues” “Pocket Full of Rain” They’re really cranking the songs out, and it’s hard to keep track of titles. Earle tells us about the new album, “Breaks My Heart.” “This City” A great version of “Copperhead Road.” 
The band was swinging and it had a Hank Williams Country and Western sound. It was more rocking than usual for Steve Earle. He wore a straw cowboy hat. It was more of a Saturday night party atmosphere.  
Then, the perfect song for the day. “Warm San Francisco Night.” A great HSB moment with the Eric Burdon classic. Locals know it’s a rare warm San Francisco night out on the avenues.  
“Warren Hellman’s Banjo” Earle talked about Warren Hellman saving San Francisco City workers’ pensions. “Not all rich people are assholes.” We left a little early to get a jump on the crowd, but we could hear The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” as we left. 

Sunday. October 6. 
John Stuber and David Rice, two of The Albany All-Stars picked me up and we made it in plenty of time for the first song at the Rooster Stage. Tumbleweed Wanderers are a local band that had busked outside HSB for a couple of years. It must have been a thrill for them to be “inside” the festival playing onstage. They were rocking and they reminded me of an early Seventies bar band. Their songs were cheery and optimistic. 
“Worn Down Welcome” “You Know What To Do” “Bag of Bones” “Freedom Town” “So Long Blues” Patrick Glen played great keyboards. The Rainbow Girls join for “Fire.” “We’ll be at The Great American Music Hall November 30th!” These guys really are living the dream. The last song was “You Got to Roll With the Times” “It ain’t 1969,” the young men told us. 
We dashed to The Towers of Gold to get a spot for Richard Thompson. I wanted to see the first act, The Allah-Las. The web site said they were from L.A. and dedicated to the sound of surf, garage and punk. The “bio” program handed out in the park said they were a “grooving band with strong ties to the authentically LA-centric sounds of bands like The Byrds, Love and early Captain Beefheart.” That’s all I had to hear. We got there in time for their first song and I quickly declared they were the best band EVER! Every song sounded the same. Right out of the garage.  
Some of the songs: “I Had It All” “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind” “Catamaran” “Don’t Lock Me In” “I Want It” “Sacred Sands” “Busman’s Holiday” “No Voodoo” Maybe my favorite HSB discovery.   
It was still hot today. An old poet wandered the crowd. He was heavy set and had long white hair and beard. He held a small sign: “Red Hot Poetry.” 
The Towers of Gold and the Star Stage are set up back to back. While one act gets ready to play you can hear the music from the other stage while you wait. We can hear Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers from The Star Stage. “One More Time” 
I got a message to call my sister. My nephew Daniel, a student at Santa Cruz had been hit by a car the night before. Hit and run. I was assured he was “OK” but he did have a concussion. He had been unconscious, but was now awake. My sister said we shouldn’t come to see him yet.  
It put some perspective on the aggravations of HSB. I didn’t really feel like “the show must go on,” but I did stay. I wondered if we were getting the full story. We heard he was “OK.” I wondered exactly what that meant. 
(Daniel is recovering well from the injuries. He returned to school at Santa Cruz a week later.)
The MC talks about walking into a free Fairport Convention performance at UCLA many years ago. Right before they come onstage hard core fans move to the front of the stage. They didn’t exactly rush the stage, but they did subtly move in for a closer look.    
“I Just Survive” After the first song Thompson greets the crowd: “How you doing hep cats?” “Sally B” “And now an Eighties song,” “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” 
“For Shame of Doing Wrong” “Can’t Win” 
It was a relatively small crowd compared to the other throngs nearby. I was a bit surprised. It’s a rare chance to see him. 
The band leaves the stage for one song. Thompson plays a powerful, solo acoustic “Vincent Black Shadow.” “Good Things Happen to Good People” “Walk of Death” “Tear Stained Letter” 
I’m not a guitar player so much of what he was doing was lost on me, but it sounded like he was taking the guitar universe apart and putting it back together again for us.
We wandered a bit and wound up way back at The Star Stage for the end of Justin Townes Earle’s set. The last song was a Replacements song. Kathy tried to get to The Arrow Stage to see The Devil Makes Three, but the crowd was too much. 
Then things got weird. Van Hart had met us for Richard Thompson. He’s a friend from way back. We’ve both been to too many sports and music events together to recount here, including most HSBs. We stood up to stretch our legs. Van passed out. A total header. There was no arm out at the last minute to break his fall. He was unconscious for a short time. He had a gash on his forehead and the bridge of his nose. 
The people around us were great. Somebody ran to get the Rock medics. Van came to before the medics arrived, but he was woozy. It was obvious he needed medical attention for the cuts. 
The medics got us on a golf cart. Cyclone fences create traffic lanes used by musicians and VIPs to move from stage to stage. We zipped along that part, but to get to the medical tent we would have to pass through part of the crowd. Our driver took charge. He kept yelling, “Medical! Medical!” People were cooperative when they realized what was going on and got out of the way, but it was still taking a long time.
A drunk homeless guy purposely put his foot under a tire of the golf cart. He laughed as it ran over his foot. The driver went nuts, “THAT IS NOT COOL!” He stopped and bitched the guy out some more. I couldn’t blame the driver, but it was taking time. Van wasn’t bleeding, but he did have to get the cuts attended to.  
Van looked bad. He really looked like he’d been beat up. People did a double take as we went by. “What happened to you?” Most shouted encouragement. “You’ll be OK. You’ll be all right.” I think Van was becoming more himself and showed some humor about the situation. I know he didn’t realize how bad he looked. They checked him out at the tent, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the repairs. (I’m not knocking them. They were great and do amazing work under trying circumstances.) They did put some butterfly bandages on. They wanted Van to get to a hospital. We waited for a while to try to get another golf cart ride.
While we were sitting there Van alerted a guy at the front of the tent that he had dropped his wallet. He’s really coming to. We could hear Ralph Stanley from the nearby Banjo Stage. “Man of Constant Sorrow” Other people came into the tent. Most of them were young women looking for Band-Aids for blisters. An ambulance did bring in a guy who looked like a stroke victim. He was whisked away quickly.  
There were no golf carts around. They suggested we go to a “cab stand.” We had waited for a while, and I got the vibes that we had to do something. We carefully walked to Fulton and 22nd. A full No. 5 MUNI bus went by. While I was on the cell phone, Van found a cab. He went to the hospital and got patched up.   
I rejoined Kathy who had watched Chris Isaak. Isaak had drawn a big crowd and more were coming to see the next act, Gogol Bordello. I’d heard a lot about them, but we headed to the relative safety of The Towers of Gold Stage. There was plenty of room here to stretch out for The Time Jumpers. It was a more traditional Bluegrass way to end the day. “My Window Faces South” 
We walked home. Streams of people were leaving the park. There were crowds at every bus stop. Full MUNI busses sped by. I wondered if we’d be coming to this event  if we couldn’t just walk home.   
HSB is still an amazing event. This one had more drama for me than past years. I always think it might be the last time I’ll be able to go for three days. The crowds are a challenge, but then a year goes by. You tend to remember the good things. HSB is a great way to see a ridiculous number of acts for free.
After showing the live stream, the web site has many of the acts archived online. The quality is better than most clips on Youtube. You can watch some of the acts you missed. It’s still better to see them live, but HSB is so big you can only see a fraction of the festival anyway.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

Ian Anderson Thick As A Brick

Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Plays Thick As A Brick I&II. Monday, July 8, 2013. 8 p.m. War Memorial Opera House. 
This expedition was the brainchild of long time colleague and Tull fan John Stuber. He’s a member of The Albany All-Stars.
We met outside the Opera House. Ushers in suits and ties directed us to use the side doors. They did look a little nervous. This had to be an unusual crowd for the staff here. A female volunteer usher told us, “They’re not used to old Rockers.” Maybe they were bracing for the worst, but I had to smirk. This was much different from a Tull crowd of the Seventies. The friendly usher said she “had just seen this show in L.A. three days ago” and she was back for more. 
We had great seats in the second row of the balcony. We had arrived promptly. These shows start on time nowadays. Stuber commented on the size of the speakers. In the Seventies there would have been huge piles of amplifiers. Now that was obsolete technology. There are few if any sound delays in the Rock show of today. Today’s sound may be “better” and certainly cheaper, but there had been something cool about the piles of equipment. “They blew out the speakers, man!”  
We had a short wait and listened to some Captain Beefheart on the tape played for the waiting audience. I’m pretty sure it was Sugar N’ Spikes. There were many empty seats upstairs near show time, but it did fill in later. 
A roadie comes onstage in a tan frock coat and a cap. He checks the lights with a flashlight and appears to be doing other pre-concert chores. Others join him and they start sweeping the stage and tidying up. They huddle, link arms and sway back and forth like a college basketball team getting ready to take the court. Then they take their places at the instruments onstage. 
There’s a screen behind the band. It shows us Gerald Bostick’s view of a trip to a psychiatrist’s office. The office door opens, and the psychiatrist is Ian! Frightening. He wants Gerald to discuss how his inferiority complex began.
Ian comes onstage to our right. Under a spotlight he plays the opening riffs from Thick As A Brick. (TAAB) “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out ...” It’s great to hear the old Tull sound again. None of these band members are “originals” but we know Ian has gathered great musicians. 
Thick As A Brick was done almost exactly note for note. I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve heard the whole thing. Some of the solos stretched out and wandered from the original, but that was barely noticeable. Ian took his trademark stance, one leg folded up under the other like a stork, and played the first flute solo. He’s still the pied piper for Baby Boomers.   
It’s a bit jarring when the first street sweeper joins Ian onstage and sings. Maybe it’s so surprising because I can’t recall anyone besides Ian ever singing at a Tull show. The young man carries a flute. I thought I saw him banging it on the stage. Maybe it’s just a prop. 
Is Ian trying to preserve his voice? There are parts of TAAB that would call for him to play the flute, sing and play guitar at the same time. Hard to pull off, even for him. The first stage sweeper is Ryan O’Donnell. Sometimes he is the narrator. 
Ian does look older, but he’s in great physical shape. He even looks a bit burly. It had been a while since I saw him. ( Ian was always an old looking guy anyway. Even before the Aqualung he looked like a character out of Dickens. “Smearing shabby clothes...”
It’s more relaxed than the shows of old. Maybe the memories of shows of the Seventies are half the fun of seeing him now. Ian had twirled like a dervish and pirouetted in the air back then. He seemed almost superhuman sometimes. The spark and humor was still there, but he can’t physically move like he used to.  
The other stage sweepers are: Florian Opahle, guitar. John O’Hara, keyboards and some great accordion. Bassist, David Goodier and Scott Hammond on drums. 
Someone’s cell phone is ringing! It’s Ian’s phone. He apologizes, but takes the call. It reminded me of the sketches they used to do. An old fashioned phone would sit onstage. Once in a while it would ring. The phone calls linked parts of the show with little absurdities. Maybe it was funnier before cell phones.
Tonight it’s Anna Phoebe on the phone. She wants to play with the band, but she won’t really be there. She will join them by Skype. I don’t know if anyone has tried this before, but it could set a dangerous precedent for future guest stars at many shows. “He couldn’t make it here tonight, but from the emergency room, here’s our special guest...”
Live Skype performances or interviews can have many technical problems. Somehow they blend in the Skyped violin with the rest of the band. After the show I learned there are some technical tricks that the audience is unaware of tonight.  
Anna seems to be having child care problems. See shows us the baby and puts the child down so she can play on the next segment. Isn’t there anyone around who can help out? This is verging on child endangerment!  
Thick As A Brick was Ian’s parody of concept albums. It followed the adventures of prodigy poet Gerald Bostick. There’s only one screen behind the band. We’re treated to various works of art. There are comic and pulp magazine covers. “We’ll have Superman as president, let Robin save the day!”  
Was this what Ian had wanted years ago? Did he always want to present his music in theater pieces on a real stage? It must be great to be playing venues like an opera house after surviving the Rock sheds of the past. This crowd was attentive and not hurling firecrackers towards the stage. It was certainly more civilized. 
We know we’re close to the end of TAABI. Ian talks about how many of us, especially males, are having problems during “the final stages of life.” The horrible truth: We can’t make it too long without a bathroom break. No one has stirred from their seats, so it’s obvious when a hapless male wanders near the front of the stage. Ian asks “Tom”  where he’s going. The bathroom! A perfect, timely example. Ian enlists Tom as a volunteer in a public health demonstration. A female volunteer from the audience offers to assist. “I’m a real doctor,” she says, “Dr. Terry” 
Ian’s humor has always been ribald and bawdy. It’s the old anal up your bum sort of humor. The volunteers go behind a screen and we see a frantic proctology exam silhouetted. It’s not much of an encouragement to get an exam, but apparently this is a serious pitch. Ian tells the males of the audience to have an exam. Victims of prostate cancer are shown on screen, including Telly Savalas, Joey Ramone and Frank Zappa!  
TAAB I ends with the screen showing the last word, just in case. The crowd yells Brick!   
After a short intermission, we settled in for TAAB II. The tape played Dirty Love by Zappa and the Mothers. 
On the screen onstage, we’re shown a tour of gardens and a mansion near the town of Cleves. It’s very aristocratic.   
I expected TAAB II to be more of the same, and it did sound similar. Stuber liked it more than TAAB I. “It’s written for his voice the way it is today.” Both pieces were great, but it was surprising that TAAB II held its own against the original.  
The critics had roasted Ian for TAAB I and his next album, Passion Play. He was bitter about it and threatened to retire from playing live. Maybe it was just an excuse not to tour for a while.   
The screen behind the band shows us a man wandering the St. Cleves’ countryside in an old frogman outfit with aqualungs. He struggles over cement and mud in long flipped feet. He is persistent and near the end of TAAB II walks across a beach and into the sea. It looks like he’s home again.  
TAAB II ends and the crowd rises and applauds. An onscreen Ian introduces the musicians. There’s no way they can leave without playing something from Aqualung. TAAB I&II have been great, but the piano intro to Locomotive Breath brings the first real Tull rush of the evening. Heads are bobbing to the beat. “Old Charlie stole the handles!” 
So, what’s next? Will Ian tour with a version of Passion Play? 

Later: About a week after the show I saw a “Production Profile” on this site: 
To keep production costs down there were no live cameras onstage. The shots we saw of the band were pre-recorded. The timing on TAAB was so precise that I never noticed that there were no cameras onstage supplying the footage for the screen in back. It’s another testament to the musicians. They “played to a click.” 
Maybe some of this was explained from onstage, but although the sound was great, I did have a hard time understanding Ian’s Glaswegian accent. 
The Skype segment was never on Skype. It was recorded too. Once again the musicians had to rise to the occasion and be exact.
You can catch The Albany All Stars at The Ivy Room or Freight and Salvage. Watch for future listings! 


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Rolling Stones Oakland 2013

It had been a while since we went to a big Rock show. It was hard to believe The Stones were coming again, but I did crave another blast of live Stones. The Fifty Year Anniversary was too good for Mick and the boys to pass up. Could we get off the train even if we wanted to? Did we really have a choice?   
We didn’t get tickets when they first went on sale, but we rarely do. Ticket brokers bought many tickets and tried to sell them for double the face price. Ads online promised “cheap Rolling Stones tickets.” For four hundred dollars.  
Maybe The Stones had finally gone too far. They say they don’t profit from the scalper’s prices, but I have to wonder. Mick is known to be a control freak involved in all parts of the operation. It’s hard to believe they don’t know what’s going on with ticket scalping.    
They had played a few shows to test the waters. How much would hard core fans pay for their last chance to see The Stones? The veteran fans on Stones fan sites (, said that the previous shows in London, New Jersey and Brooklyn had tickets available at the last minute. You could walk up and buy a ticket on the night of the show. There could be tickets around for those with the nerve to wait.   
As the date of the show arrived, prices did come down. My sister Joan persevered and got tickets from Craigslist. We paid $200 a ticket about a week before the show. We were glad to have tickets in hand, or at least the computer print out. There’s always doubt when you don’t have a ticket.  
It was a bit surreal going to the show. It was hard to believe we were really heading to another Stones show. This would be show number forty for me. There was some pre-Stones angst. This could really, really be the last time. There was a different kind of urgency. We told tales of former tours. 
We got in line to enter the Oakland Coliseum, now the Oracle Arena. Most of the crowd were obvious Stones veterans. There was about a half hour wait, and then we made it through the metal detector. This could be normal in Oakland now for all I know. 
Our seats were in the rafters, but that was fine with me. I was content to watch the awesome spectacle from upstairs. The stage took up space, but it wasn’t as huge as the stages used at outdoor shows. A large ramp in the form of the Stones tongue logo circled the area in front of the stage. Inside the ramp was “the pit area.” Posters on Shidobee said that seeing The Stones from the pit was a once in a lifetime experience. The original face price of pit tickets was $1,000! 
We were cut off from some of the huge screens overhead, but that was all right. I usually want to see them, not the screen. The sound was great. There was a little “bounce” off the ceiling, but it was worth it to see them in a relatively intimate (17,000) arena.
The crowd was settling in. It’s not as surprising to see wild looking geezers using canes to get to the seats in the upper reaches. This was an old demographic. There were very few kids. With these ticket prices no one was taking a gamble that the kids might be bored.   
There was no opening act. Considering the price, you’d think they’d have put someone onstage. It must solve the problem of what was once called the toughest job in show business: opening for The Stones. 
It’s getting near show time. The giant screens show us clips of super celebrities paying homage. Johnny Depp, Iggy, Martin Scorsese, Pete Townsend, Lars Ulrich. (The Examiner said Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett was there in a floor seat.) Among the sound effects before they hit the stage was a bass heartbeat that rattled chests. They still know how to build the tension. They burst onstage about 9:15 with Get Off My Cloud. It’s a great opening song. We know we’re in for something special. We were in the orgasmic bubble that is The Stones. It’s clear from the start that no matter what they look like, they rock!   
They follow with a series of hits: It’s Only Rock And Roll, Live With Me, Paint It Black. The intensity seemed to go up a notch for Gimmie Shelter. Lisa Fischer was amazing on what is now her signature song. She has an amazing voice.   
Fischer is in the film “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” We saw it at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It’s a great documentary on the back up singers of the Sixties and early Seventies. The night we saw it, Tata Vega and Mary Clayton came out after the film and sang! It will be in theaters in June. 
I’m not big on the surprise guests. It can be a waste of precious Stones time. The show in Los Angeles had Keith Urban and Gwen Stefani. The Stones are trying to connect with another new generation. Tonight’s guest is more in the spirit of The Stones: Tom Waits joins them for Little Red Rooster. It’s a great touch. Waits growls with the band on the old Blues song that was on The Stones’ first album. 
It was hard to understand anything they said onstage. Mick did ask, “How many here are really from Oakland?” He said he walked around Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park. Imagine turning a corner and running into old rubber lips playing the tourist. Keith mentioned being in “Frisco.” 
They do some Country and Western for the East Bay crowd, Dead Flowers. Next is Emotional Rescue. It’s not one of my favorites, but it is something different. 
During On Down the Line overhead screens were filled with shots of music icons. We see pioneers of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll. Chuck Berry, Etta James, James Brown, Ray Charles. If anyone else did it, it would be considered blasphemy. It’s a reminder of The Stones place in the pantheon.    
Mick doesn’t sprint around the stage like he used to, but he still covers a lot of ground. His stamina was amazing as the show went on. Truly amazing at any age.  
Stones shows seem to have their own pace.  Next were two new songs: Gloom and Doom (Mick on guitar) and One More Shot. Gloom and Doom is a great new Stones song, but the crowd seemed underwhelmed. There does have to be new songs.  
It was back to the classics for Honky Tonk Women. The screens showed a great animation sequence behind the band. 
Mick did the band introductions and it was time for the Keith segment. There wasn’t the usual exodus to the powder rooms. Ronnie Wood hammed it up after Mick announced him. They look old, but Keith and Ronnie are still the lunatic hoodlums.   
We got Before They Make Me Run! Keith has sounded sharp and crisp. It’s a very friendly, smiling Keith tonight. He really looks like he’s getting off on being onstage and touring again. The second Keith song is Happy. 
Mick Taylor joins for Midnight Rambler. His return to the band has been well hyped. He doesn’t look like the angelic choir boy who escaped The Stones in the Seventies. It’s interesting to see him back with the band. Too bad he’s only onstage for one song. Mick goes nuts!    
Miss You. Always a big crowd favorite. 
A great version of Start Me Up.  
Tumbling Dice. 
Brown Sugar. We’re in the big windup that will feature “the old war horses,” the Stones biggest hits. Veteran fans would prefer some more obscure songs, but The Stones have to satisfy the more casual ticket buyers.  
Sympathy for the Devil. Great solos by Ronnie and Keith.  
They leave the stage for a short while and the San Jose State choir sets up on opposite sides of the stage. They do an uplifting You Can’t Always Get What You Want. The choir’s singing sounds so good I start to wonder if it’s been taped. What a thrill for members of this choir. They can always say they were onstage with The Stones.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Mick and Keith wander the tongue ramp around the pit. They  almost bump into each other at one point.     
Satisfaction. It’s another grand finale, maybe the last one. 
Mick Taylor comes out with the boys for the final bow. 
I wouldn’t be that surprised to see them come back again. Keith says that when a tour starts, it builds a momentum of its own, and it’s hard to stop. How long can Charley keep drumming? How long can anyone keep playing the drums? Some Jazz drummers have played into their eighties. Charley, like the rest of The Stones, is in largely uncharted territory.  
It was certainly worth it for me. The tickets were expensive, but The Stones are still inspiring, maybe more inspiring than ever. It could be the last time, but we’ve heard that before.   

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Twenty Feet From Stardom

Every year the San Francisco International Film Festival has some great music events. This year’s highlight was Twenty Feet From Stardom. It’s a documentary on the backup singers that we’ve heard on so many hit records. Some of them came very close to stardom. The documentary is a great look at the highs and lows of being in the music business.  
It’s not polite to ask a woman her age, but everyone was doing the math. They were young women singing on those records from the late Sixties and early Seventies. That was a little over forty years ago. They had to be sixty or seventy years old now.  
Morgan Neville and his daughter are introduced. Neville was surprised when he started to research the history of backup singers. He learned that, “Not only wasn’t there a book, there was hardly a magazine article.” Festival Programmer Rod Armstrong tells us to stick around for the Q&A. There will be a surprise performance! We’re in the big theater in Sundance Kabuki. It used to be a Rock club. It’s been renovated, but the stage is still in front of the screen and with the balcony there is still a bit of a Rock club atmosphere.  
Twenty Feet From Stardom follows the careers of Darlene Love, Claudia Linnear, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer and Mary Clayton among others. The music in the film is a soundtrack for Baby Boomers. 
They all started in the church. A well edited scene cuts to each of the singers, and one by one the divas tell us: “Father was a preacher.” They learned to sing with their families in church. Most struggled with their families when they started to sing “the devil’s music.” 
We’re shown footage of Mabel John rocking Gospel in church. Mabel is the sister of Little Willie John. The Supremes sang backup on one of her records before they shot to stardom. Her solo records didn’t sell well and she became one of Ray Charles’ Raelettes. She went back to Gospel music in the early Seventies and still sings in church today.   
There is a comic clip of Perry Como singing with white backup singers. They had limited mobility. “They could swing their arms back and forth.” Black singers brought much more excitement with their swinging Gospel style. 
“It all started with Darlene Love.” She sang on many hits of the Fifties and Sixties, especially the records of Phil Spector. Some hits credited to Ronnie Spector were sung by her. Darlene Love was one of the first black backup singers. “We were strangers in the studio,” she said, “It was all white when we started.” 
Life as a backup singer was demanding. It’s a different kind of pressure. There’s plenty of time for a star to do a retake. There is no time for that luxury with backup singers.
Most of the singers wanted stardom badly. Some were glad to be in the business without the sacrifices of being stars. The last twenty feet is quite a leap.  
When musical tastes changed and recording budgets shrank, some had to find other ways to pay the bills. Another problem was that record companies thought there was only room for one Rhythm and Blues diva. “There’s already an Aretha.”  
Darlene Love had to “clean houses” to make ends meet. “The great Darlene Love was cleaning houses.” One day she heard one of her big hits on the radio, The Christmas Song. She realized she was not where she was supposed to be. She made a comeback and was eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 
Darlene Love struggled with Phil Spector. He wanted her under wraps for his own recordings. This kept her from her own stardom. She had signed a contract with Spector and waited for years for it to expire, then she signed with another record company. She was relieved to finally be away from Phil Spector. That record company sold her contract to ... Phil Spector!  
There are great talking head cameos. Bruce Springsteen appears near the beginning and end of the film. Mick Jagger’s craggy features stand out on the big screen. They both praise the unsung divas.      
There is stunning footage of the Ike-ettes, including Claudia Linnear. Ike Turner had strict control. Maybe it was the style of the day, but Ike just looked criminal. The Ike-ettes were the wildest!  
Claudia Linnear had a part in some of the more raucous chapters in Rock history. She was on The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. She said Joe Cocker just let them loose onstage every night. She was The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar. 
Claudia says that The Stones had the bad boy attitude, but what she remembers is that they were fun. “We used to try on each other’s clothes.” She flashes a mischievous smile when asked about her relationship with Mick Jagger.
A clip shows her singing at George Harrison’s Bangladesh benefit. She says, “It was cosmic.” Claudia looks like she lived through some hard times. She had to borrow from relatives to support her kids. Mary Clayton said that, “All of a sudden, she just wasn’t around anymore. She just walked away.” There is footage of her teaching Spanish at a local college.  
Things worked out better for Lisa Fischer. She’s toured with The Rolling Stones since 1989 and is now a big part of the show. She adds to Gimmie Shelter with her stunning voice. Some question why she does it. Wouldn’t her own stardom be more lucrative? There is a price for stardom and Lisa doesn’t want to pay it. She’d much rather be able to walk the streets “without sunglasses on.” She will be onstage with The Stones a week after this event.   
Lisa Fischer says she was worried about meeting Mary Clayton. She thought Clayton would be mad that Lisa was “singing her song.” Clayton is a forceful character. When they met she was gracious and said they were sisters.
Tata Vega admits that had she really “made it,” she probably would have overdosed. “I wouldn’t be here.” There are pressures that come with being the top name on the marquee. 
Mary Clayton may have had the most tumultuous career. She talks about getting a phone call in the middle of the night. “The Rolling Somebodies” were recording and needed a female voice. Mary arrived in a house coat. She blew them away on Gimmie Shelter, a song about rape and murder. Clayton wanted stardom and seemed very close with a great record in the early Seventies, but it had disappointing sales.  
Director Morgan Neville joins programmer Rod Armstrong for a Q&A. How did it all get started? Neville had the concept. He called producer Gil Friesen. Friesen was one of the founders of A&M records and quite a character. He liked to say he was the ampersand in A&M records. Friesen had just lit a huge joint. Neville talked him into making the film. “It was the most expensive joint he ever smoked.”
Someone asks if they had a hard time getting releases for the music clips and how they got such great participation from stars like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger. “It was all Gil Friesen’s rolodex.” Apparently many people owed him favors. Sadly, Friesen passed away before the premier of the film, but he did get to see it. 
Walk on the Wild Side is played in the film. Someone asks if they asked Lou Reed to participate. They didn’t even try. “No, he’s too much of a curmudgeon,” is the quick reply. 
Neville tells us that they made fifty oral biographies for the film. Much material hit the cutting room floor. They hope to use some of it on a DVD or web site. 
Have the divas seen the film? How did they react? Neville says they loved it. Lisa Fischer saw it at the Sundance Film Festival. She held Morgan’s hand and cried.
    It’s time for the Divas. Tata Vega comes out of the wings and sings It’s a Man’s World. It looks like she’s shaking. It’s an emotional moment. The audience rises in a heartfelt standing ovation.  
Mary Clayton comes out next. She sure controls the stage. She comes out to a standing ovation. After a song she insists in bringing the taped accompaniment down. She’s going to tell us about “God stuff ... You may not like it, but I’m going to say it.” There is much testifying and advice on survival.  
The film started at 9 p.m, so it was pushing 11:30 when the event ended. On the way out I heard a woman tell her friend, “I’m rarely awake at this hour.” 
It’s hoped that the film will get the backup singers more recognition. The documentary on The Buena Vista Social Club boosted the careers of the Cuban musicians in that film. Maybe more attention will be paid to the backup singers who helped make so many hits. The film will be released in June.  

Friday, April 5, 2013

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2012

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. 2012. 
The media was predicting that the first weekend in October would be “Eventageddon.” That weekend was when Fleet Week, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the Columbus Day Parade were usually held. This year there would also be America’s Cup yacht racing on the Bay, a Giants playoff game and a Forty-Niners football game. Any two of these events could cause traffic problems. Huge crowds were predicted for America’s Cup alone.  
The Blue Angels would be buzzing above Larry Ellison’s championship yacht. There would be people all along the waterfront. It made sense to just go to the event in our neighborhood, The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It would be the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival after the passing of its founder and generous sponsor, Warren Hellman.
This won’t be a play by play. Some song titles are approximations. For amusement purposes only. 
There are three days of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass now. Friday is the most laid back day. I arrived at The Rooster Stage to catch most of the first act, Simone Felice. She’s a female singer with a big Afro. It was a mellow sound to start the day. I checked out a couple of songs, but they were too nice. It’s not as crowded on Friday, so it could be the only day that was good for wandering. 
Signs told us: “Don’t chain bikes to fences. You will be towed.”
John Reilly & Friends. I didn’t realize it was the movie actor. “We play traditional Country and Western,” he told us. “Muleskinner Blues” “Crazy Arms” “Crying Time” The singer, Becky Stark mentioned “the vaporizer going in the front row.” Tom Brousseau joins. “Lonesome Train” I head to The Rooster Stage. Seeing Chuck Prophet is a priority.
It’s early, but I get a spot with a good view from the side of the stage. The MC tells us that, “Somebody did a bad thing.” Someone took down the no parking signs on Fulton Street. The authorities had corrected the situation. The problem is that if you parked there you will be towed even though there was no sign up when you parked! 
Our MC also announces that there will be no taping allowed. He suggests we, “Live in the moment.” There’s a vague promise that footage will be online later. Past year’s performances were quickly posted online.  
Tex had told me about Chuck Prophet. He writes great songs and sounds like Ray Davies sometimes. “Storm Across the Sea” “Sand In My Shoes” “Play That Song Again.” His songs are about San Francisco’s past and historic characters. 
“Halloween Is Gone” laments the demise of the holiday. Halloween is not for kids in San Francisco. “White Night, Big City” touches on the Milk and Moscone slayings. “Temple Beautiful” celebrates the early Punk scene in San Francisco. The Temple nightclub in the song was later the site of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. Prophet’s big hit is “Who Put the Bomp.”  
The set gained momentum as it went on. The other acts had been nice, but this was the first time this weekend that the crowd really got going. Hardly Strictly had really begun.
I stopped at The Banjo stage for a bit of Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys. They played old fashioned Honky Tonk. There I ran into Jim Burke, a PSE trader from way back. We don’t plan to meet, but we run into each other almost every year. 
We went to The Star to see Chris Carrabba. They did a cover of Talking Heads “There She Was.” “Hard Times Aren’t Going to Ruin My Mind.” They’re a young band and they did a Guy Clarke song, “The Kid.” The singer said that when he first heard it, he thought Guy Clarke had written it with him in mind. “How could he have known me so well?”
Jerry Douglas was playing at the Banjo Stage. It sounded like the Sixties. I’m sorry I missed a couple of songs. This was one of the highlights of the year! Jerry Douglas announces that they’re going to do a Bluegrass song that was recorded by The Weather Report! Douglas plays great dobro and later switches to slide guitar. “I’m Almost Done” They finish with a riff on “Norwegian Wood.”
Tribes of street kids hung out in the back of The Banjo Stage area. It’s not far from Haight Street. Their clothes were torn and filthy. They looked like they just walked out of a Dickens novel. 
One guy with long hair put on a juggling exhibition. He carried a bucket on the end of a pole about eight feet high. He juggled balls and once in a while popped one into the bucket. He drew a crowd, but I don’t think he made much money. These kids looked crazy. We wondered if they were as crazy as we used to be.
The Time Jumpers played at the Banjo Stage. They were a return to Bluegrass. “Nothing But the Blues” “Love Ain’t for the Faint Hearted” Their version of Bob Wills’ “Corrina” was a big crowd favorite.
Kathy met me for Elvis Costello Solo. It really was solo. “Welcome to the Working World” “King of America” Elvis stood alone onstage. He did a cover of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” “Every Day I Write the Book” “Walking My Baby Back Home” 
The beginning of “Watching the Detectives” was blasted on tape. Elvis picked the song up, still alone onstage playing guitar. The tape was the only accompaniment for Elvis today. It was odd to hear him using tape, but he did pull it off. 
It was a stirring performance, especially for hard core Elvis Costello fans. We were far in the back and decided to move on. It wasn’t a huge crush of people at The Banjo, but we wanted to wander.
The Star Stage had Reignwolf. It’s still a surprise to see a Heavy Mental act at Hardly Strictly. A guy sat at the drums and played guitar and drums at the same time. An idea so stupid no one ever thought of it before. It was a change from the genius of Elvis Costello. Two band members joined: “Stitch and Texas Joe.” People were drifting over to see Elvis, so there was a lot more room here. We listened to a couple of songs. They were rocking, but it was certainly not an act we’d bother to see in the real world. We were glad to check them out for free at Hardly Strictly.
Friday is definitely the day to go to Hardly Strictly. People do pour in late to see the main acts, but in the early going it really is what Hardly Strictly was all about.   

Day Two. Saturday. I show up a little later today and enter the park near the Rooster Stage. It’s pushing 12:30 when I find a spot way in the back at The Banjo Stage for Allison Brown Quartet. Stuart Duncan is on fiddle. I see this group almost every year, although it’s by chance. Buddy Miller will be next, and I’ve learned to never miss him at Hardly Strictly. He’ll be followed by the “Tribute to the Founding Fathers.” 
Buddy Miller starts with “There Is a Higher Power” and “Deep Blue Sea.” Patty Griffin joins for “Gasoline and Matches.” Jim Lauderdale joins for “I’ve Lost the Job of Loving You.” The whole set is another highlight of the weekend. The Blue Angels buzz overhead for the first time. It was still possible to walk up to the side of the stage and I got a better look. Emmy Lou Harris was sitting onstage. She later joins the band for a song with another guest, Robert Plant, who’s announced almost as an afterthought. Oh yeah, he’s here too. Plant didn’t sing, but he did go onstage and play harmonica.  
After some “technical difficulties” they do the Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton song “Wide Road Ahead” and finish with “All Tears Washed Away.” 
Bill Kirchen was at The Arrow. I could walk over, but I took a pass. Slowing down.  
“Tribute to the Founding Fathers. Warren Hellman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.” We expected something special from this one and it was. The “Founding Fathers” had all passed since the last Hardly Strictly. It drew a big crowd. We were way in the back. Sometimes the sound from the nearby Star Stage “bled in.” It was a unique event, but for some odd reason, it seemed to draw the more casual fans who talked too much during the music. 
Preservation Hall Jazz Band started off with “Nearer My God to Thee.” It was a mournful start, but livened up a bit with “Ramble All Around.”  The band played two fast paced Earl Scruggs Bluegrass reels. Tim O’Brien sang “Deep River Blues” during which he told a long story about meeting Doc Watson. It was rambling, but humorous.  
The Wronglers joined for a lively “Would You Love Me If I Wandered Back Tonight?” Emmy Lou Harris joined and sang with Heidi Clare and another Wrongler. “Oh My Darling.” Gary Scruggs came onstage for “Easy Chair.” Steve Earle joined for the finale. 
It was another great tribute to Warren and his friends, but I was surprised at how downbeat it was. I think the huge crowd expected a more upbeat tribute. Some of the lyrics were unique for this event. There were references and tributes to “The Founding Fathers.” I think the crowd expected a big surprise. 
Next up were The Chieftains. We were able to go up the side and get a better view. They put on a great show with Irish dancers. Not every song sounded Irish. They did more “World Music.” They were great, but they didn’t do a Rebel song. They did do “Kerry Fergus.”  
We saw Steve Earle last year and knew he would draw a huge crowd, so we chose to see The Flatlanders. That’s how crazy Hardly Strictly is. We leave Steve Earle to see The Flatlanders. It was at The Arrow Stage and even though there were a lot of fans there, there was more room to move around. The crowd and the band seemed looser. Saturday night at the roadhouse! The priority here was having a good time. 
Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock: “Julia” “I’ll Take Her Home to the Mountains” Joel Guzman has great accordion spots. “Have you Ever Seen Dallas from a DC9 At Night” “Pay the Alligator.” It had been a long day for most in the crowd and people started leaving. We got near the stage for the encore. 
Our route out of Golden Gate Park took us past The Rooster Stage so we got our annual look at Robert Earl Keen. “I Gotta Go.” A large group of people were behind Keen onstage for a cover of The Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie.” “One way or another...” It was a merry, rocking end to Saturday at Hardly Strictly. 

Sunday. 10/7. 
I arrive early and make the opening for the last day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. My plan was to see Dry Branch Fire Squad. There have been so many bands I’ve discovered at this festival over the years, most of them by chance. I love the Dry Branch Fire Squad’s sense of humor. I was coming in on my usual route past The Rooster Stage and spotted Buddy Miller onstage before Jim Lauderdale’s set. I was just going to hear a couple of songs, but stayed for the whole set. 
“Live Like Thunder.” Lauderdale says, “This is a song I wrote with Robert Hunter,” “Matchwood River.” Things are getting off to a fast start here. Fats Kaplan is on steel guitar and other instruments. Nick Lowe joins for “Always on the Outside” and “King of Broken Hearts.” 
Miller and Lauderdale have a new CD, “Buddy and Jim.” Miller says, “It took us three days to make it, but it sounds like it took four days.” “I Love You More Than I Can Show” Lauderdale does a solo acoustic song. He tells us that, “We have to give the horses a rest.” “Half Way Down.” 
My plan today is to start at The Star Stage for The Knitters and a tribute to Doug Sahm and go to the Towers of Gold stage later for Patti Smith. Patti Smith and Exene on the same day! It’s already pretty crowded when I arrive for Giant Giant Sand. It’s a bit overcast. They play a mellow Jazz tune. Really. It’s another Hardly Strictly surprise. There’s a song about Going Home and then “Paranico.”  It’s a great band. When it’s over the MC thanks John Paul Jones for “helping out.” He also mentions that Robert Plant joined Patti Griffin onstage earlier that morning. So, two former members of Zeppelin are wandering around Hardly Strictly. Joel Selvin’s article in the Chronicle says Plant and Griffin just got married! 
The speakers at the Star Stage play The Milk Carton Kids set from the neighboring Towers of Gold Stage. We get a spot on a small hill, but we’re still pretty far back. 
The Knitters start with “Poor Little Critter on the Road” and the sun comes out a bit. “Burning House of Love” A car crash song: “I Couldn’t Hear Anyone Pray.” “We Don’t Need to Try Anymore.” The Knitters are sounding hot and the crowd is digging it. I went up to the side of the stage to get a better look at Exene. She does look like a psycho-billy. She’s wearing combat boots and a red apron that says, “To Hell With Housework.” It’s early, but the crowd is rocking! “Hand Me Down My Rocking Cane.” They dedicate a song to Warren Hellman, “Give Me Flowers While I’m Living.” Exene really means it.  
John Doe says the after party will be in Dave Alvin’s hotel room. “But, you have to travel to 1981 to get there.” “I Got My Baby Out of Jail.” “Stranger to Me” “New World” “Someday It’s Going to Rain” The finale: “Wrecking Ball” The crowd roars at the end of a rocking set. 
Doug Sahm’s Phantom Playboys. A tribute to Doug Sahm. The MC tells us that Sahm was an A’s fan. I vaguely remember him doing a National Anthem. “He’ll be cheering for the A’s to sweep three. Now we know the A’s lost Game Two. 
The tribute band was put together by Boz Scaggs: Dave Alvin, Delbert McClinton, Jimmie Vaughn and others. “Money Over Love” “Dynamite Woman” “A Fool to Care” “What’s Your Name?”
“Mendocino” is a big crowd favorite. I thought of Doug Nunn and friends who moved there years ago. “Do you know how to get to San Antone?” “What Happened to the Real Old Texan in Me?” Steve Earle joins for the big hit: “She’s About a Mover.” “So Long, Hate to See You Go.” The crowd was listening, but really buzzing during this set. 
It was time to head over to the Towers of Gold Stage. Moving around from stage to stage has become more of a problem at Hardly Strictly in recent years, especially for the big names. When we saw Patti Smith at last year’s festival, we were able to stand not too far from the stage on the far right. We didn’t get near that spot today. 
Dwight Yoakam was playing and it was one of those Hardly Strictly biblical migration scenes that we had avoided so far this weekend. We headed way to the back and got an OK spot near some speakers. 
Dwight Yoakam is another big Hardly Strictly surprise. He’s a big star and the band had a big rocking sound. It was more of a Heavy Metal presentation than Country and Western. Very professional. Very big. “I’ll Take You Back One More Time” They play a big crowd favorite: “Act Naturally” the song Ringo covered. “They’re going to put me in the movies!” “Little Sister.” 
This was real big time Country and Western show business professionalism. Dwight Yoakam looked like a geezer, but the band members were young. They wore wild shiny cowboy outfits. Kathy noted that there was “a lot of bling” onstage.  “I’m a Honky Tonk Man” Dwight tells us that he’s going to play something that, “I want to play.” They do a great version of “Sloop John B.” It’s another great Sixties song. We’ve heard some great ones today. 
Patti Smith would be next at this stage. There was the Hardly Strictly human ebb and flow. Country and Western fans left for other stages. More Punk looking fans started coming in. Patti Smith is still a big draw. Especially for a chance to see her for free. I was getting excited. It’s like seeing one of The Rolling Stones. 
  The crowd was pumped and rose to give Patti a big welcome. They started with a  song about breaking rules. The sun was starting to set. The musicians were facing the sun. Patti put on sunglasses. She later apologized, “It’s kind of bright up here.” 
She told us that she wrote the next song with Tom Verlaine. They would go out in the middle of the night and look for UFOs. “We promised each other that if one of us was abducted we’d come back for each other. That was my romance with him.” “When Will You Return?” 
There are more tales of mystical experience. “We Shall Meet Again” “Shake the Ghost.” Patti donned a guitar for a wild jam: “Southern Cross.” There was a big crowd reaction for “Because the Night.” They rocked the crowd with the title song from their new CD: “Banga.” Patti encouraged the crowd with “People Have the Power” and finished with “Gloria.” I don’t think she could have left that one out with a crowd this size. 
Patti spelled out Pussy Riot and mentioned their plight. (They had just been convicted in Russia that week.) After the last song she came back out and made an impassioned plea to the crowd. “If you’re suffering from the economy don’t give up ... As long as you have your imagination” things will work out. 
It was time to wind down. We stopped at The Star Stage and saw some of “Keller Williams, Steve Kimock and Kyle Hollingsworth.” It was great to hear their old Sixties sound in the former Speedway Meadow. They did a great “Honky Tonk Woman.” 
Next stop was The Arrow Stage. This was the “Grateful Dead stage” and drew kindred spirits. We were working our way back home. Alo had the next generation of Deadheads dancing.
The big finale every year is Emmy Lou Harris, but we didn’t go near that crowd. We did stop on our way out at The Rooster Stage for the end of The Civil Wars’ set. They drew a large, enthusiastic crowd. 
This was the first Hardly Strictly since Warren Hellman’s passing. He was mentioned and his presence was felt all three days. He left a trust fund so the festival could continue. 
Even with all the other events Hardly Strictly still drew a huge crowd. The days of wandering casually from stage to stage may be over. With some planning the crush of the big crowds can be avoided. You do ten or eleven of these things and you pick up some tricks.