It was time for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 16! I’ve almost taken this great music festival for granted. As the date approached I got more excited. More psyched. This year’s post may read more like a list than usual. It’s for the hard core. There will still be some sociological observations.
Entered the park at the 25th Street entrance. A small group of people were staring at a small tree at the side of the trail. It still had support ropes attaching it to the ground. A Red Tailed Hawk was perched in it. Barely six feet off the ground. It was odd for a hawk.
Walked by the almost empty Rooster Stage. There are more cyclone fences every year. At the end of Marx Meadow I could hear PMW (Poor Man’s Whiskey) at the Swan Stage. They were playing the “kid’s show.” School kids from across the city are bussed in. After the song Mayor Ed Lee was introduced. His voice sounded weak and funny.
The first “must” of the year. I missed him last year: Bill Kirchen & Austin de Lone. First act of the festival at the Banjo Stage. They start a little early. They skip the usual public service announcements. Maybe they assume we know all the rules after all these years.
“All Tore Up After You.” Bill’s wife Louise joins for “1969.” It’s “A song about back in the day.” “Cut to the chase ... every night was great.” Austin de Lone is playing keyboards, a Roland RD-7000. Bobby Black is playing steel pedal.
Kirchen has a new CD that has a tribute to Merle Haggard on it.
Kirchen: “This is an old Commander Cody song ... the old Commander!” “Let’s Rock” Let’s Rock with the old Commander.
Kirchen’s daughter Caroline joins for “Already Walking.”
“It’s been fifteen minutes and I haven’t played a truck driving song!” Kirchen says he’s recently added some new lyrics to “Hillbilly Truck Driving Man.” It ends with a new transgender verse!
Butch Hancock joins for “Oxblood.” His son Rory Hancock comes out and borrows Kirchen’s guitar. He rips.
A red tailed hawk circles over the stage during “No Need for Knocking, Come Right In.” Another song Kirchen did with “the old Commander,” “Wine, Wine, Wine.”
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Louise Caroline Kirchner, Butch and Rory Hancock join in for The “Times They Are A Changing.” It’s the first big emotional rush of the this year’s festival.
It’s a good time to check out the Porch Stage. Ismay is playing. Avery Hellman fronts the band. She’s the granddaughter of Warren Hellman. She talks about, “Growing up at the festival.” She and her dog Pickles attended many HSBs. She talked about going to Warren’s horse races. (Warren Hellman was an expert equestrian.) The music was slow and a bit ethereal. Interesting, but I had got a tip on Valerie June.
Went to the Arrow Stage for Valerie June. On the way I was stunned to discover that they had taken out the picnic tables! These had been a comfortable haven during HSB weekends.
Valerie June has a distinctive voice. It’s hard to describe. “Running on Tennessee Time.” She plays a little ukulele banjo instrument. “”I Need Somebody.”
Delta Rae at the Arrow Stage. Bigger band and sound. Two female singers. They’re all young. One of the singers says that they’re “scared about the election.” They do an Election Song. The choir from the Oakland City of the Arts joins! I blew it off as a gimmick, but the band and singers put on a powerful performance. An inspiring song of hope. The crowd really gets into it. Then “Dance With Somebody.” The HSB Biography handout quotes Rolling Stone: “If Fleetwood Mac came up in North Carolina, they might resemble Delta Rae.”
It’s the second year for the Bandwagon Stage. It’s a large camper opened up with a small stage in front of it. The program read: “Heidi Clare with Special Guest Country Joe McDonald.” Apparently Country Joe is a no show. Ron Thomasson is filling in. This is the real deal. Old time Bluegrass. “Singing As We Rise.” “Mother’s Lament.” The last song Ron did with Warren Hellman: “I’m Here For You.” The song was written by Marjoe Wilson who joins.
Heidi works with Marjoe at UCSF. They’ve been doing research on memory, especially the effects of lyrics on memory. “Lyricsthink.org!” They have a radio program called Brain Song Radio. Heidi introduces “Bruce Miller and the Collaborators.” They’re a group of scientists that work with her at UCSF. They spread around the stage and sing backup for “Dance of Damnation.” “Let’s hear it for the scientists!” “This is the sound of water.” The Hallelujah song.
The Bandwagon Stage is the smallest at HSB. It’s near the Arrow Stage. There never seems to be that overwhelming crowd feeling here. People wander in and out. It’s what I imagine a “real” Bluegrass festival up in the hills must be like.
Jimmy Dale Gilmore joins. Heidi says he was her first patient at UCSF. They do the appropriate. “My Mind Has a Mind of Its Own.” Butch Hancock joins. He and Gilmore wrote the amusing song.
I figure out that “Colvin and Earle” are Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle. Arrow Stage. They start with “Wake Up Little Suzy.” Great old Everly Brothers harmony. “Come What May.” Then, a blast from the Sixties, “You Were On My Mind.” Originally done by the We Five. Next is a tribute to Hank Williams: “Rolling and Rambling.”
Friday is the most laid back day. I’m able to get near the front of stage right in time for a powerful “Ruby Tuesday.” Steve Earle introduces the next gem from the Sixties, “Tobacco Road” recorded by the Nashville Teens. “You’ve probably never heard of them.”
The pace slows. They play a more quiet song. The crowd’s attention wanders. Chatting. Oblivious. “You’re Wrong, I’m Right.” The crowd snaps back into it during “Thinking About Burning Down the Wal-mart.”
Earle admits that it’s an arson song. Colvin says she has one too. “No, it’s a murder ballad!” Earle shouts. Colvin admits that it is a murder ballad, “Sonny Came Home.” Before the last song Earle warns the crowd: “Sing along or they’ll think you’re a Republican.” A horrible fate in PC San Francisco. Maybe it was the Sixties nostalgia, but this set stood out during this great weekend.
Hop Along is playing at the Rooster Stage. Singer Frances Quinlan has a unique voice. Interesting. Somewhat jarring. They sounded good, but I wander to see Boz Scaggs. I’m not a big fan, but I have to admit he delivers.
“I’m So Tired of Paying Dues.” A Louisiana song: “I’m a Fool to Care.” Mrs. Monet helps out on vocals.
Boz mentions the passing of Allen Toussaint. They play a Toussaint song about New Orleans: “Just Like Hercules.” Boz and Toussaint had played together at San Francisco’s Masonic Theater about a year ago.
“Too Little Too Late.” Then, a Joe Simon song: “Drowning In a Sea of Love.” It’s time for the big hit: “Georgia.” Mrs. Monet comes back for “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About.”
Rebirth Brass Band. A drone passes through the crowd. Those things give me the creeps. Was it just a photo opportunity? Just hope this doesn’t lead to more. Will buzzing drones be accepted at events like this? Rebirth Brass Band has a lively New Orleans sound.
Back to the Bandwagon Stage for Jon Langford. He sits in front of the camper. Solo with an acoustic. He talks about meeting and playing with Johnny Cash. It was an election year and Langford dared to ask Cash who he was voting for. Cash explained that it wasn’t anyone’s business and the privacy of the ballot box was sacred. But then Cash added, “I ain’t voting for no Bush.” “Live For Next Week.”
Langford spun some tales. He was there the night Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love in Wales outside TJ’s, “the best punk club ever.” He sings a Tony Scirodo song, “Pale Sailor.”
Langford launches into another yarn. Hank Williams recorded under an assumed name. He made a novelty record, “No No Joe” that criticized Russia’s Prime Minister Josef Stalin. According to Langford, Stalin arranged for the recording of a Country and Western album. Songs answered Williams’ song with, “Silence You” and “Hank Williams Must Die.”
Missed Dave Alvin last year, so he was a “must.” “Dave Alvin’s Tribute to Merle Haggard and California Songwriters.” Alvin is slick, “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.” They start with “Out In California.” “Well I’m sitting here drinking / In the last bar on earth.” A Merle Haggard song: “Rambling Fever.” A John Stewart song, “California Bloodline.”
Friday is the best day. A different atmosphere. I stick to the plan. Come early, leave early. I get home in time to hear some online audio of Mavis Staples. “Make a Friend.” “Dedicated to You.” The Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Staples and the song seem to always be relevant. Timeless. “Respect Yourself.”
Saturday. October 1.
After riding with John Stuber and his daughter Eliza we get there early enough for bagels at The Rooster Stage.
Elephant Revival at the Banjo Stage. Five piece band. “Life is a Feather.” “Under the Starlight.” “After the Slumber.” They do an acapella Gospel song. It has a bit of a Celtic sound to it. “When I Fall.” It’s not if I fall. “Old Rogue River.”
There is a bit of a gap. We check out The Porch Stage. The Cactus Blossoms are from Minnesota. “Clown Collector.” “No Love Calling.” A Mississippi song, “Going Down to the Sea.” A flood song: “Down South in New Orleans.” Great harmonies. They sound like twenty-first century Everly Brothers.
We hear a song by Jack Ingram at the Rooster Stage, “Down in Biloxi.” Head to the Swan for Kris Kristofferson. When we get to the Swan it’s jammed. The field is almost filled. There’s usually room in the back. I’ve never seen it so crowded so early. Cyndi Lauper and Chris Isaak will be playing here later. We sit in the back and can’t see or hear. The crowd in the back has basically given up and are socializing. “Me and Bobby McGee.” What will it be like at this stage later? People keep streaming in.
We retreated to the food trucks near the Rooster Stage. Bobby Bare plays his big hit from 1962, “I Want to Go Home.” “Another Man Done Gone.” I have a spanakopita.
We’re at the back of Marx Meadow. I spot Larry Wilson. I met him while working at Greg Martin Auctions. R.L. Wilson. He’s an expert and author on antique firearms, especially Colts. I explain that he’s my idol. He wrote a great book about Buffalo Bill. It’s not that surprising to see him here.
We go back to the Arrow Stage. Marco & the Polos are playing the Bandwagon Stage. The band are Hellman family members. They do the Bobby Gentry song, “Tallahassee Bridge.” “Let It Be.”
We’re at the Arrow Stage more or less by chance for Hot Tuna Electric. We saw them last year, so it wasn’t a priority, but how can you beat two of the Jefferson Airplane playing in the park again? Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy. Cassidy still looks as weird as ever. “Hesitation Blues.” It’s hard to hear in the back. They grind out a grungy sounding Hippie anthem. “Come Back Baby.”
We’re in a good spot for Chuck Prophet’s appearance at The Bandwagon Stage. Hot Tuna runs over their time slot by fifteen minutes. The timed schedule is usually kept to. It may be because of technical problems at The Bandwagon Stage. Prophet gets a bit short changed.
We’re kind of wandering at will now. But moves have to be carefully planned. There’s no way to avoid crowds, but there are ways to avoid the biggest crowds. We take the back route passing the Polo Fields on the way to the Towers of Gold Stage. JFK Drive is getting very crowded.
Jamey Johnson. “The Weight.” “Don’t Do It, Don’t Break My Heart.”
We sat on the side of the steep hill at The Towers of Gold stage. It’s almost shaped like an amphitheater. If you can keep from slipping or sliding down the hill you can see what’s onstage! I couldn’t help but notice a young man a few “rows” below us. Yes, there is much smoking of marijuana at HSB, but this guy wins stoner of the year. He was taking hits off a bong being passed around while smoking a joint. Impressive.
It’s amazing the crowds that the more mainstream acts draw. We head to The Swan Stage to try and get a look at Cyndi Lauper. I look down JFK Drive and see one of the biggest logjams of people I’ve ever seen at Hardly Strictly. People are not moving. We go across the street. You can hear, but you can’t really see. There are some people, but it’s not as crazy as across JFK Drive. She does the Sixties hit tearjerker, “The End of the World.” (Skeeter Davis.) Then a Patsy Cline song: “Walking After Midnight.” She plugs Arthur Godfrey’s Amateur Hour TV show! Her between song chatter is in a heavy New York accent.
Somehow we can see her head and purple hair. The crowd situation on JFK Drive looks like the worst I’ve ever seen at HSB. People are trapped. They can’t move in either direction. We had stayed out of it by crossing the street. People keep trying to get in! They don’t know there’s nowhere to go.
Guys start jumping over the cyclone fence that creates a lane for VIP golf carts. The first ones are turned back by police. Women are pleading with the police to let them get out. The police can’t stop all the guys that keep jumping the fence. They want out! Tension seems to be building. People are still trying to get into the area.
Finally the cops open up the fence and let people through. Our haven will be quickly overrun. As soon as those cyclone fences are split open we high tail it back to the Towers of Gold Stage. We can still hear, “Time After Time” and then the big one: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” “Colors.” It looked like a bad crowd situation. I was glad to be across the street in relative calm. Maybe HSB has finally just got too big.
Somehow I always wind up seeing the Flatlanders. It’s fate. “Featuring Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Butch Hancock.” They play some sad songs, but most of the set is good time Saturday night music. “Standing At the Station.” “Flatland Dirt.” “Julia.” “Rosie From the Mountains.” “The Highway Is My Home.” It’s a big Saturday night party crowd at the old Hippie stage!
Avery Hellman and Steve Earle join. “Traveling Man.” “Know You Rider.” The surviving Deadheads go wild! A great Rocking version.
I get to the Rooster Stage for Kane, Welch and Kaplan. It’s late for me. “Gone, Gone, Gone.” They introduce “a song about Little Egypt, Illinois, “Maloney Road.” A Guy Clarke song: “Magdalene.” For the record they are: Kieran Kane. Kevin Welch. Fats Kaplan. “May Days Are Long, But My Nights Are Longer.” A Tim O’Brien song: “Not As Hard As It Used To Be.” It’s always a music history lesson with these guys!
A glimpse of Wee Willie Walker, Aki Kumar, Aireene Espiritu, John Blues Boyd. “Walk Away Blues.”
The trail from The Arrow Stage to The Swan Stage winds around the Polo Fields. A young busker was just setting up. He flew into a very enthusiastic “Twist and Shout.” A group of five young women starting singing, but they had their own lyrics. Their version was a tribute to the banana slug mascot of the University of California, Santa Cruz!
I expected to see Buffy Sainte-Marie alone onstage with an acoustic, so I was surprised to hear a full band behind her. And they were Rocking! After a song she told the crowd that “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown, “Should be on everyone’s reading list.” “Lord Carry It On.” “Star Walker.”
A short walk to The Towers of Gold Stage for The John Doe Rock ‘N’ Roll Band. The crowd situation is much calmer today. There’s room to move. The former member of X promises to Rock. “Let It Go.” Unfortunately there is no Exene today. “This May Be the Last Time.” “Need A Little Help Today.”
It was easy to get close to the stage without any drama. This would be rare as the afternoon continued. “Blue Sky Above.” Doe asks the crowd, “Who wrote that?” Beats me. A woman standing near me figures it out. It’s Joni Mitchell.
“I Need a Drink of Water.” “Gotta Get Off This Train.”
For the old Detroit Rockers: “It’s a New World. Don’t Forget the Motor City.” “Walk Away.”
Back to The Swan Stage for Hayes Carll. “A Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” “Is there anything sadder?” “For the Sake of a Song.” He tells a story about playing with John Prine at HSB six years ago. He went from a gig of about fifty people in a club to a huge festival crowd. “I’m As Wild As a Turkey.”
I’m heading towards home now. Stop at the back of The Rooster Stage for some Jonathan Richman songs. “A painting song ... If it smells like a painting ...” A song about Raphael. “Angels Watching Over Me.”
Jerry Douglas Band with Special Guest Maura O’Connell.
Opens with a couple of instrumentals. “I’m Almost Done.” “Seen Ya.” Another instrumental, “The Best Kept Secret.” Maura O’Connell joins. An odd song, “November of ’78.” Great dobro sound.
A song McDougall wrote, “I Can Live Without You.” “The E Train.”
I could still hear them most of the way to The Bandwagon Stage. I want to see what the heck “The Brothers Gibb” could possible be.
Yes, they are a Brothers Gibb tribute band. The three “Brothers” are in front of the camper wearing one piece shiny disco suits. They all have long, obviously fake beards. They’re playing “Night Fever” from Saturday Night Fever. It’s slightly Bluegrassized. The singer says they’re performing, “In association with Space Wizards.” He calls for the estate of the brothers Gibb to drop their law suit. “I can’t understand why they feel that way!”
The other brothers, “Obediah and Ezekiel” are looking very Amish in their long, stringy beards. “How Deep Is Your Love?” and “Dancing Queen.” The crowd laughs, but dances to the old Disco anthems.
For the encore they play something different, a rollicking version of The Rolling Stones “Miss You.” It’s a big crowd favorite! The band was a little rough around the edges, but the act was hilarious. But what are they doing here?
The mood was a bit more serious for Nahko and the Medicine People at the nearby Arrow Stage. After a song an Indian woman came onstage and gave a shout out to the Ohlone people, the real natives of the Bay Area. She and the band had just returned from a “fifteen day ritual in Shasta.” It was time to get together, organize and save the salmon. They played a song for the West, North, South and East.
I listened to a couple of songs by Wynonna & The Big Noise at the Banjo Stage. There was a big Country and Western crowd for the C&W star, Wynonna Judd.
Then a final stop for this year at The Rooster Stage for Rosanne Cash. “50,000 Watts.”
Johnny Cash and Rodney Crowell had written a Civil War song for Emily Lou Harris. As soon as Roseanne heard it, she wanted to record it. The writers wouldn’t give it to her. They finally did and she recorded, “When the Master Calls the Roll.” My last song for the year is Hank Williams’ “Movin’ On.”
Back in my man-cave I watch some of Cake and Dropkick Murphys online.
Another great festival. The crowds can be avoided, but this might have been a tipping point year. Is it just getting too big?