Monday, October 27, 2014

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2014

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. 2014. 
This year’s post may read more like a list. I’m not going to say a lot about the conditions and crowd. There will be some standouts that I’ll mention. Most of the crowd were normal, law abiding citizens. Again, my theory is to spend as much time there as possible. I did wander this year, much more than I expected. Some song titles are approximations, or a scrap of a lyric. 
Some of the titles I figure out after a Google search of a lyric on that Internet thing. This one will be rough around the edges. I want to get it posted before it’s ancient history. There are many clips already posted on Youtube, and the Hardly Strictly web site has great footage.     
When the schedule came out John Stuber of the Albany All-Stars gave me a call. “This year it’s Hardly ANY Bluegrass.” Many of the Bluegrass icons who performed when the festival started are no longer with us. There were not as many of the huge stars as years past. No Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton or Steve Martin. There were still some big names, but it’s the mega-stars who bring out the masses.   
10/3. Friday. Heat wave in San Francisco. Temperatures near the nineties. Sunny. The crowds will be huge. Nearby casual fans would come at the last minute.  
Friday is by far the best day to go. The crowd did build up later in the day. There are four stages active today. Saturday and Sunday will see seven stages active. Helicopters hover overhead.   
Arrow Stage. There’s a small, new stage at the back of The Arrow Stage. The Bandwagon Stage. It’s a converted RV camper. It’s opened up so that it’s a stage. The banners with Warren Hellman’s bio hang nearby. There’s also a larger trailer that I assumed was some kind of VIP thing. We can hear Peter Rowan’s Twang an’ Groove starting in the distance. Our MC is Zeke Moats from Grizzly Radio. 
11:00. Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun. I missed him the last couple of years. “Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods.” “Get a Little Goner.” Austin de Lone is on piano. “Here’s our pro-science, evolution song: Rocks In the Sand. “There’s a Man At the Bottom of the Well.” 
Blackie Farrell joins for “Rockabilly Funeral.” Kirchen says he needs some sun screen for his Telecaster. It’s early, but the sun is a big factor. Great, rocking version of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing.” Kirchen says, “I hope they are!” “I Ain’t Never Had Too Much Fun.” 
The last song is “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and Kirchen seems rushed to get his entire history of Rock and Roll into the time left. He plays a few riffs from the greats of Rock and Roll. He does Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf riffs in less than a minute. There’s a shout out to his fellow high school student, Iggy Pop. (Must have been a hell of a class.)  
Great start. I would have walked over to see this act alone. 
I wander a bit to get out of the sun. Catch the last song of Peter Rowan’s group at The Banjo Stage. They make an announcement that John Prine will be late. His flight out of Chicago was delayed by the recent control tower problems there. He will play later, at 4:15. This last minute change to the batting order opens up a chance to see Dave and Phil Alvin at The Star Stage, but first, Buckwheat Zydeco at The Arrow Stage: 
“What She Said Boogie.” Long Zydeco Rocker. Buckwheat has great stage presence. Great live act, and the crowd loves it! He goes to the organ for a Blues song. “Peace Love and Happiness.”
I head to the Star Stage for the Alvins. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are still onstage. Female singers. “California Line.” “Open Your Hips.” 
A guy and his wife are searching for a spot. “Shade is at a premium,” he tells her. I can hear Hurray for the Riff Raff from The Arrow Stage. For a while, it sounds like Pink Floyd is playing over there. 
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin With the Guilty Ones. There’s a delay. At least fifteen minutes. Looks like a technical problem. 
An old guy is on his cell phone: “Somebody stole my tarp!” I’m tempted to taunt him. In past years people have spread large tarps and then wandered off leaving prime real estate empty. They’re really putting a stop to it this year. You just can’t spread out a huge tarp and leave it empty. Security will remove the tarp if there’s no one there. 
The Alvin’s new CD is Common Ground. It’s a tribute to Big Bill Broonzy. Dave says that during recording: “No one got hurt.” (The brothers have had a stormy relationship.) “Feel So Good.” “Key To The Highway.” Dave tells us Phil took harmonica lessons from Sonny Terry. He plays harmonica on a Blues song. “Southern Flood Blues”   What would it be like to wake up and find the Ohio River on your doorstep? “Trucking Little Women.” 
They do a comic song: “All They Ever Do Is Ask About My Brother.” They can kill a rattlesnake with their bare hands or write a paper on numbers theory, but people will only ask about what the other Alvin brother is doing. Phil Alvin has written scholarly tomes on mathematics. Many people say that’s impressive and then ask him what his brother has been doing lately.  
People huddle in a strip of shade on the left. On the right is a big open space in the sun. You can walk up much closer to the stage. People will usually brave the sun to get close, but not today.   
“Dry River.” “Please Please Please,” The James Brown song. Rocking version of “Marie Marie.” “Get Back Baby.” Closing medley with band introductions. 
This year’s panhandling sign: “We need like seven dollars.” Three ragged, but attractive young women are looking for funds. An old guy cracks, “They’ll get it.” 
Back to the Arrow Stage. The trailer I noticed before is open. It’s a preview of an exhibit about Warren Hellman and HSB at the The Contemporary Jewish Museum downtown. There are posters from every year of the festival. TV monitors show highlights and interview from over the fourteen years. It’s air conditioned! 
Cibo Matto With Nels Cline. No idea who this is, but the small “bio” handout says they’re from “New York/Tokyo” and that “guitar great” Nels Cline of Wilco is in the band. Everyone onstage is in total white. They do an odd Devo/Rap song. The crowd loves them. They are entertaining. I can imagine them in a night club. Another HSB surprise. 
John Prine at The Banjo Stage. “Grandpa Was a Carpenter.” “A song about a woman from the North: “Iron Ore Betty.” “Christmas in Prison.” “Angel From Montgomery.” “Whistle and Fish.” Song about murders in a forest preserve: “Lake Marie.”
One guy close to the stage stands up. He just starts going totally psycho, flailing his arms and head. It could be dancing, but I’m not sure at first. It’s one of Prine’s more upbeat numbers, but this guy seems to be on a different level.
The crowds are getting much bigger. Four o’clock seems to be the witching hour. Prine’s set is very subtle in parts and the party people chatter through it. This happens whenever Prine plays here. The party/cell phone crowd seem to be better about obnoxious talking. Maybe it’s because they’re texting. There are still times they’re totally oblivious. Steve Earle joins for “Muhlenberg County.” 
There’s a half hour gap in the action. It’s too far to get back to The Star Stage for Lucinda Williams. She has many hard core fans. I can see them heading over there. I wait in the shade for: 
You La Tengo at the Arrow Stage. First song sounds like a Lou Reed song. Droning Heavy Metal. Then they do a Country and Western song. They sounded interesting, but I was fading. “Rushing By Too Fast.” 
I started my exit route. Ryan Adams was at The Banjo Stage. Surprisingly good. Hung out at the picnic tables in the back. “Stay With Me.” Made a short stop at The Rooster Stage for some of Coner Oberst. 
Day Two. Saturday 10/4. 
The heat wave continues. It will be another sunny, clear day in the Park. 
Arrived 11:00. Top priority is Whograss at The Star Stage. It’s a band put together especially for this occasion. On the way I wondered who was going to be Keith Moon. It’s Praire Prince on drums! I’m not sure, but the concept may have been his. Also in the band: Chris von Sneidern (guitar) and Peter Straus (bass.) I can just imagine these guys playing one night. Maybe one of them does a Who riff. One note leads to another. The Who played Bluegrass style? The results are amazing.  
“Theme from Tommy.” It will be a big sound. There’s a blasting “I Can’t Explain.” Adrenaline is rushing in the morning. It’s some of the “majesty of The Who.” “Substitute.” 
Pete Sears joins on accordion for “I Am One” and a great version of “Squeeze Box” featuring Sears on the accordion. 
“Baba O’Reilly.” Jeff Ryder nails the string part at the end on his fiddle. 
“It was forty eight years ago today that The Who recorded Boris the Spider,” but we’re not going to hear that one. Chuck Prophet joins to sing “Pinball Wizard.” It starts as a slow C&W Johnny Cash style song. It’s really funny how the lyrics fit. “From Soho down to Brighton, he must have played them all.” The crowd laughs at the synchronicity. Prophet says, “OK, let’s do this!” and the band plays the “real” Rock version. 
“Joseph” joins to sing “My Generation.” He sang onstage at the memorial show for super roadie Marshall Holmes at the Fillmore.
One of the best acts I’ve seen at any Hardly Strictly Bluegrass! Great sound. They really captured the spirit of The Who. Another day that starts with the first act being well worth the walk. 
My original plan was to save the legs and camp out at The Rooster Stage where Buddy Miller would be presenting a “Cavalcade of Stars,” but first I stopped at The Arrow Stage. Blue Rodeo is a member of the Canadian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They sound great, so I hang for a while. “Rise Up.” A sad song: “You Are the One.” “Disappear.” Great song. “Hasn’t Hit me Yet.” 
A V formation of Canada Geese do a low fly over of the crowd during a great piano solo on “Disappear.” “I Am Myself.” “Feeling Left Alone.” The crowd loves these guys, and they sound like they deserve their spot in the Hall of Fame. 
It’s not that far to The Banjo Stage for the Alison Brown Quintet. I never plan on it, but I always see her at HSB. This year I only catch the end of “The  Appalachian Celtic” set.
They announce that the festival is being streamed on the HSB web site, courtesy of Moonalice. It’s hot enough that I find it tempting to go home and just watch it online. It would be easier to see what’s going on onstage. Is that the future of HSB? Well, I’m here already. Might as well watch it live. 
There are seven stages going today, but there are still thirty to forty minute gaps where nothing is going on. I want to see The Porch Stage at least once this year. It’s usually pretty laid back here. The Felice Brothers come onstage. I’m surprised they’re playing here. I saw them at The Rooster stage last year and they drew a big crowd. It’s a larger than usual gathering for The Porch Stage. 
“I’m All Right If You’re All Right.” “Put Some Whiskey In My Whiskey.” “The World Will Go On.” “Sixteen Miles.” 
Back to The Banjo Stage for The Time Jumpers. It’s now 1:25, and I still haven’t even seen The Rooster Stage. I get into the old time sound of The Time Jumpers. “Six Pack To Go.” “All Aboard.” “I Hear You Talking.” Vince Gill joins and they do “You Got My Number, Liza Jane.” 
The Time Jumpers are great, but I find myself drawn to the bigger sound coming from The Arrow Stage: St. Paul & The Broken Bones. Have to check them out just for the name. They’re from Birmingham, Alabama and play a Stax/Volt style of R&B. 
An old guy lets a young lady off the hook in “You’re Too Young.” “A Sam Cooke song, done Otis style,” “Shake.” It’s still early, but the crowd is getting into this party music. “To Die For Me.” “Your Love Is Like a River.” Band has a great horn section. 
The singer’s voice is a bit abrasive, but he’s pouring his heart and soul into it. The crowds are getting big. They do a Gospel song. I missed the title. “Call Me.” The big finale is “Try A Little Tenderness.”    
Maybe it was because some of the veterans I usually attend with were not here this year, but the demographic here seems to be changing. The crowd looks younger. Maybe the older generation is getting tired of traveling to the festival and dealing with the crowds. There are still geezers here, but it looks like things are changing.
The Bandwagon Stage at the back of the Arrow fills some of the time between sets with Heidi Clare (Go To Hell Man Clan) and Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad. It’s a small area with an intimate setting. Instrumental. “Sing As We Ride.” The Bandwagon’s online address is: I check it out later. It says The Bandwagon will be like a food truck for music. 
I walk by the Polo Fields, back to The Star Stage. I know it will be crazy crowded, but I’m shooting for the back to back Social Distortion / Chris Isaak. This is the one time I get “trapped” in the crowd. I’m trying to cross Lindley Meadow. Most people are already camped out in spots. It’s hard to navigate. Sometimes it looks like there’s no where to go. People in large groups stop and look around for a spot, but it’s too crowded. There’s no where to go. Pedestrian gridlock. Because I’m solo it’s easier for me to wind my way through the crowd and get to the street. 
On the other side of John F. Kennedy Drive, people have gathered in the shade. The drive is blocked off by a temporary fence of iron traffic “horses” for the carts that whip VIPs and musicians from stage to stage. There is an occasional intersection where we can cross. On the other side of the street we can hear, but we can’t see. This is great after escaping the crowd. There’s some breathing room over here.   
Mavis Staples. The Gospel and R&B legend who was there when it happened. A walking historical legend. The band sounds great. Professional R&B sound. “If You’re Ready.” Mavis reminds us that she was there for the history. “For What It’s Worth.” Great version of The Buffalo Springfield song. “He’s All Right.” “Can You Get to That?” 
People start to jump over the metal fencing on John F. Kennedy Drive so they don’t have to walk to the next intersection where they can get across. They’re sneaky about it. Mounted police are patrolling the area. Once in a while they catch someone, but then they just give them a lecture and let them go. Guess they don’t want to dismount and do the paperwork. Some people sneak across, ignore the mounted cops and then just melt into the crowd. It’s a little piece of HSB anarchy! 
After a little break I walk around and get the side view of the stage for the end of Mavis. “Respect Yourself.” “I Won’t Turn Around.” “The Weight.” Powerful R&B!  
The Towers of Gold Stage is right next to The Star. I was just going to go to the back for the Heavy Mental act Social Distortion, but I could see there was nowhere to go. The whole area looked filled. I just stayed with the side view. 
There’s a short wait. The Rolling Stones “Gimmie Shelter” is blasted over the speakers shortly before they take the stage. It gives me chills! 
Social Distortion. Shaky on these song titles. Song about Hell. “Hell Comes To Your House.” Their sound reminds me of The Clash. They played a song that sounded like The Pogues: “Prison Bound.” Great Heavy Metal Punk sound. 
Usually there’s a tarp put up on the fence at the side of this stage so people don’t stop to watch. It does cause traffic flow problems. A small group near the fence very subtly took the tarp down so we had a great side view. 
There have been mosh pits at Hardly Strictly before, but this one was huge. I never got the mosh pit thing. This one looked like a “fun” one. It didn’t have the menacing edge I’ve seen in more hard core pits. Guys stood on the periphery and I noticed their mosh pit function was to push guys back into the rotating mass. There were very few women even near the pit. One brave young woman did crowd surf. 
They finished with a great cover of “Ring of Fire.” 
The Star Stage. Chris Isaak. “I’m Gone.” “Somebody’s Dreaming.” “Six Blocks.” 
Isaak tells the crowd he lives six blocks away. “I can walk here!” He talks about playing guitar in this same meadow thirty years ago. Never imagined he’d be playing here in front of a crowd like this. 
Isaak’s set brought back memories of other shows of his that I’ve seen, but I faded and started back. It had been another long day, but I had to stop at The Rooster Stage for Robert Earl Keen. Got there in time for “The Road Goes On Forever.” The crowd was in a festive Saturday night mood. Whooping it up! 
Sunday. The Rooster Stage. Arrive about 11:30. It’s a little cooler today. Still sunny and clear. There are no Blue Angels this weekend. Fleet Week will be next week, so we won’t be buzzed by jets this year..
Get there in time to hear the last song from the Go To Hell Man Clan: “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Head to The Arrow Stage for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Jimmie Dale Gilmore was playing at The Bandwagon Stage in the back. “Beyond the Blue.” “I thought I had a handle on religion.” Jimmie Dale says, “I slept on streets that Warren (Hellman) owned.” 
I knew The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has a fanatic following. There are more people here this early than I’ve ever seen at HSB. “Down In The Easy Chair.” A Steve Goodman song: “Face On the Cutting Room Floor.” Another low flying formation of Canada Geese flies over the crowd. 
Their 1971 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” arguably started the modern roots, Americana music scene. They play a Jimmy Martin (“The King of Bluegrass”) song: “My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me No More. John McKuen plays a banjo song for Warren Hellman, “Return to Dismal Swamp.” (He played with Dave Mason at Napa’s Uptown Theater.  
Jimmy Fadden tells us some of the history of the band. They’re from Long Beach. They played the Carousel and Fillmore ballrooms in San Francisco in the heyday of the Rock Ballrooms. 
A Fadden song: “Working Man.” (Nowhere To Go.) Their big hit: “Mr. Bojangles.”
“Here’s a Colorado song,” “Rippling Waters.” It’s a long song with great solos, especially piano. The crowd gives them a big ovation. They do a Bayou Party song medley. It’s still  early, but it’s Cajun party time!  
Went to The Banjo and caught some of Hot Rize (featuring Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers.) “Shady Grove.” One of the band members is called Dr. Banjo. 
So far today things seem more relaxed. More laid back. Is it because the acts aren’t as big? Is it because the party people prefer Saturday night?  
Jerry Douglas Presents The Earls of Leicester. “Salty Dog.” Real old time sound, but no dobro. I’d caught Douglas two years in a row. Psychedelic sounds drew me back to The Star Stage. 
Moonalice started with what sounded like a Jefferson Airplane song. There’s a long jam that they work “Eight Miles High” into. “Let’s Ride.” For Warren they cover “Down the Road A Piece.” Pete Sears joins on piano. “That’s All Right Mama,” the Big Bill Broonzy song again. 
I see Praire Prince sitting at one of the picnic tables. He’s on a cell phone. I do a double take and he gives me a little nod. He acknowledges that I know who he is, but I can tell he isn’t in the mood for the fan thing. 
I catch one scene. An old guy is with four twenty something guys. It looks like his son and his friends. The old guy demonstrates some kind of wild mountain dance. He flails his arms and legs around. A bit of a rooster dance. The young guys laugh, but they are impressed the old man can still move like that. He’s passing it on to a new generation.
Dr. Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys. “Sing a Worried Song.” “One Day.” “Walking Down the Road.” “The First Mistake I Ever Made.” 
Stanley is eighty seven years “young,” and he has been performing for sixty nine years. He doesn’t play banjo today and sings on half of the songs. He’s the stone face of HSB now. 
“Little Boy Called Joe.” Jim Lauderdale joins for “I Feel Like Singing Today.” 
The new album is The Legacy Continues. “Orange Blossom Special.” 
T Bone Burnett at The Rooster Stage. “Never Wonderland.” I love his dark, ominous sound. Get ready to be stung or bitten. There’s a big beat, but the first number sounds more like a spoken word piece. We’re going to “Hefner’s Land.” Walt Disney lives there and takes pictures of go-go girls. He sells them to the local kids, who love Uncle Walt. 
A song about hard times, “There Would Be Hell to Pay.” 
A small hawk flies up into a nearby tree and perches. Thought it could be a Cooper’s, but when it flew out later it looked like a juvenile Red Tailed Hawk. The big crowds don’t seem to bother the raptors at all. 
“La Bamba.” An old Rocker from Texas has to have a good “La Bamba” in his repertoire. T Bone praises Richie Valens. 
A Waylon Jennings song: “Long Time Gone.” “I like to play songs by my friends,” T Bone says before a great, rocking version of “Blowing In the Wind.” Burnett is one of a very few who can name drop Jennings and Bob Dylan as “his friends.”  
“Humans From Earth.” Eerie and ominous. 
“River of Love.” “The frightening thing is not dying.” A great line from “Primitives.” “Scarlet Tower.” “That was a little night time music.” 
Burnett says this is the first time this band has played together in eight years. He says Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the best music festival in the world! “Ordinary Man.” 
I head to The Star Stage for a last lap. It’s now five o’clock. The crowds are enormous now. The meadow in front of The Star Stage is packed. I stand way in the back and listen to Lake Street Dive. They sound like a good party band. Oddly, they’re not from Chicago. Another band I’ll want to look into.   
I toyed with the idea of going to The Star Stage for Dwight Yoakam. He had put on a great show a couple of years ago, but I’ve learned to look ahead on JFK Drive before I join the herd. Masses of people are headed for the big finale that will feature Emmy Lou Harris. I’ve learned to stay away from that stage. I decide to just go to The Rooster and see whoever is there. It’s on the way home. 
Jason Isbell. Many people had left The Rooster Stage after T Bone Burnett. It’s an HSB mass exodus. I get a pretty good spot on the hill on the right. This is Marx Meadow. It’s where HSB started for me. In fact, it’s where I saw my first free music in San Francisco, many moons ago. 
About ten minutes before the scheduled start, streams of people come in from other stages. I can hear people: “Oh! There’s so much room here.” They’re refugees from the other stages. They’re ecstatic to find a place to throw a blanket. 
“Go Home.” “Can You Leave Our Love Behind?” or “Rising From the Past.”  
“Decoration Day.” Jason’s knockout wife, Amanda Shires, is on fiddle and violin. Chad Campbell plays keyboards and accordion. He’s the brother of a member of St. Paul and the Broken bones.”
“Tired of Traveling Alone.” “Codeine.” “One of her friends has given her codeine.” I remember this song from The Drive By Truckers a couple of years ago. “Live Oak.” “I wonder who she’s pining for now?” “Somebody Take Me Home.”  
Another great Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival for me. I did wander more than I planned and saw many acts and the usual HSB surprises.