Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2017


It was less than a week after the massacre on the Las Vegas strip. People at a Country and Western Festival had been gunned down. It looked like the work of a lone gunman, but even that had to make you think. How many nut jobs are there out there? 
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival would be held on the next weekend in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The event is free and there are no entrances. There are no checkpoints for security checks. The Festival area is not fenced off. There would be a huge crowd with little security by today’s standards. Well, the show must go on! 
This year’s post may read more like a list. There will be some commentary. Some song titles are approximate.

Friday. October 6.
Friday is the best day to go. The crowd just isn’t as large or as intense as the rest of the weekend. Everything just seems more laid back on the first day. I went with Jack Stuber, one of the founding members of local band Cornbread Willie. We parked at 44th and Cabrillo. We park farther and farther away each year. This year my plan was to get there later and leave later. It didn’t work out that way.      
  There are only four stages going today. There’s no Towers of Gold Stage, so the first music we chanced upon was at The Swan Stage: Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors were singing “American Beauty.” Then a new song: “Family.
You can’t go wrong with Dry Branch Fire Squad. They’re one of the first acts I ever saw at HSB. It’s real Bluegrass with the band led by slow talking Ron Thomasson: “Even people that are into Bluegrass say we’re a little hard to take.” “Valley of the Gun.” “Take Me In.” 
Thomasson says that “Rock and Roll would have been impossible without Bluegrass.” He said it at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction for Bill Monroe. 
Heidi Clare is guest on fiddle. As if the music wasn’t traditional enough she does a clog dance.
We met up with Van. “It’s like the old days!” when HSB drew crowds of thirty thousand. It was still early.   
We check out Big Thief at The Rooster Stage and hear three songs: “Mary.” “Masterpiece” and “Shoulders. They sing some great harmonies.  
Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express at The Swan. They open with the first of many tributes to Tom Petty this weekend. “The Waiting.” “Waiting is the hardest part.” Prophet not only sounds like Petty, he looks like him too. 
“Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.” “Go All the Way.” An unknown new song. 
I still scribble song titles on a piece of paper, but in the last couple of years I’ve been using Setlist.fm more. 2016 was a “Bad Year for Rock and Roll.” 
Prophet has written some great songs about San Francisco history. Some of them are on his album The Temple. “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” is about the Mitchell Brothers. “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp.)” “Mausoleum.” 

There are no more printed handouts of the schedules and act biographies. They can be downloaded from the HSB web site. It makes sense, but I’ll still miss the paper. Will most ephemera be lost?
There is one big change. The Arrow Stage is now The Arrow Meadow. This is in the former Speedway Meadows that have been renamed for Warren Hellman. There are now two smaller stages. The Bandwagon stage is an RV that has been opened up to create a performance space. Next to it is the Victrola Stage. It has a huge Victrola behind the stage. Very cool. 
The Arrow Stage had been a problem traffic area. The stage and a row of food vendors created a traffic bottleneck. There were problems with the sound coming from the nearby Banjo Stage. The Arrow Stage had the more “Hippie” Sixties Grateful Dead type acts. That action seemed to be more spread out this year at the other stages. Was it one of the reasons the HSB crowd seemed more laid back this year? 
Nearby is the Silent Disco. It’s not open for business yet. The area reminds me of an empty amusement park.
Foy Vance was on the Bandwagon Stage solo with a guitar and a synthesizer. The acoustic problem wasn’t totally solved. He was sometimes drowned out by the end of Billy Bragg’s set at the Banjo Stage.  

There were understated public announcements. I never heard any mention of Las Vegas from the stage. There are announcements about the few rules every year, but I think people listened to them more this year. This year it was a little more than the “No smoking in the Park” announcement. Know the nearest park exit. That sounded nice, but I had to wonder. How much would that help if something really happened. Would people calmly look for the proper exit? Or would they crash off into the trails and  bushes? 
“If you’re at The Rooster Stage exit towards the ocean.” At least this announcement made some sense. The back of the Rooster Stage has cyclone fencing put up to accommodate the VIP golf carts. They could block a quick exit for those on the hill. 
We went back to the Rooster Stage and caught the end of The Felice Brothers. “Ghost Town.” I’ve seen them before at HSB. They’re a lively band that features an accordion. During “Where’d You Get Your Liquor?” they used some lines from “Froggy Went a Courting,” an old family favorite.
It was time to get serious about food options. There are more food vendors and trucks this year. It cut down on the lines a bit and offered even more variety. I went with a piece of pizza. 
People still dress up for HSB. They get out their cowboy clothes. There is some Halloween in the air. One guy was skating around with a gold costume and odd headgear. On his back it read: “RIP SOL.” The Summer of Love may finally be over.  
Back to The Banjo for ‘The Bo-Keys featuring Don Bryant and Percy Wiggins.” “Learned My Lesson in Love.” They’re a big band from Memphis, Tennessee and have a great R&B sound.
No alcohol is sold legally at the event, but there are entrepreneurs. One group of young men even had a sign: “HSB Beer.” As the weekend went on the forces of law and order prevailed. The few sellers left were very more cautious.  


T Bone Burnett will close today’s festivities at The Banjo Stage. Missed him last year, so that made him a priority for me.  
Walking on JFK Drive, Stuber and I spotted a guy wearing the “Hot Rod” Rowdy Roddy Piper tee shirt. We gave him high fives. “Best tee shirt of the day!” His spirit lives on! 
There would be a long wait for T Bone Burnett, so we went back to The Rooster for First Aid Kit. “It’s a Shame.” “Emmy Lou” is a song about Emmy Lou Harris.  
I’ve always liked the dark, ominous sounds of T Bone Burnett, but today’s set is puzzling. Burnett is onstage with two others, a drummer and a synthesizer. Burnett is in front of a synthesizer. I don’t see any guitars onstage. The first song is a long spoken word piece. I thought it was just an intro, but it went on and on. Burnett drones the lyrics like the voice of God. I tried to stay just to see if anything would happen, but eventually I gave up. 
Stuber commented that it seemed like he was trying to prove he could do anything onstage and his fans would approve. “River of Love.” “Trap Door.” 
We did stop on the way back to the car for some of Brandi Carlile. “This Is My Song” “I Was Made For You.” Great end to the day. 
 
Saturday. October 7.
Took the bus today and went solo. On a tip from Jack Stuber I got there in time for Gurf Morlix. With a name like that, how could I have never heard of this guy? Went up the hill on the right of The Rooster Stage. One of my first “spots” at HSB. Too much of it is fenced off now. There seemed to be technical problems setting up and getting started. Didn’t start until 12:44. “Deeper Down.” The new album is “Soul and the Heart.” We hear “Love Remains Unbroken.”  
 
Gurf looks like a crazy geezer that has come down out of the hills. He has long white hair and a ZZ Top style beard. He told a story about going to a funeral. He didn’t really know the guy that well. It was an acquaintance. The funeral was quite a production and looked expensive.  
At the reception he found himself introduced to the funeral director. He asked him about the cost of an event like this. The funeral director thundered: “Don’t you have any respect for the dead?” Gurf replied, “Upper case or lower case?” 
The music is kind of Country and Western and Rocking. Fats Kaplan is on steel guitar. 
“The next song is about a good man who did some bad things... It’s not autobiographical.” Someone in the band cracks, “But it could be!” “A Good Man Who May Have Done Some Bad Things.” 
Gurf talks about the B Major 7th chord. “It’s a pretty chord.” Then he does “My Chainsaw.” It’s one of my highlights from this year’s HSB.  
Gurf: “Some people say my songs are a bit on the dark side. I don’t think so...”
He sarcastically admits and apologizes for not sounding like John Denver or Barry Manilow. Gets a cheer from the crowd.  
Gurf talks about Warren Zevon. He knew him when he was writing “Werewolves of London.” When Zevon told a friend, Waddy Wachtel, that he was writing a song about werewolves in London Waddy immediately howled. It became the howl that is heard on the record, and Wachtel got a one third songwriting credit for the howl! Gurf plays the perfect Halloween song for San Francisco. Buddy Miller joins for this and “This May Be the Last Time,” A Blind Boys of Alabama song. 
“The Parting Glass.” 

My must for today is: Peter Rowan - Dharma Blues featuring Jack Casady. 
Peter Rowan looks ancient. It’s funny. Jack Casady has short hair, but looks almost the same as he did in the Sixties. He’s playing a large acoustic bass that does have an electric hookup.
“Raven.” “Dharma Blues” has an exquisite start. They’re really doing some great weaving here. “My Love Will Never Change.” A song about Jerry Garcia: “Jerry and the Deep Blue Sea.” “It’s a Hard Lesson to Learn.” 
Dragonflies are buzzing the Banjo Stage Area. There must be fifty of them. What is drawing them to this crowded part of the Park. Don’t they prefer water?

The brazen entrepreneurs with their “HSB Beer” sign are still here. Guys selling beer are more cautious today. The cops did chase most of them away.  
Today’s tee shirt of the day: A young woman sports an “Orgasm Donor” tee shirt. 
Phil Lesh must have been checking out his former colleague at The Banjo Stage. He’s getting a ride on one of the VIP golf carts. He slips through with few bystanders recognizing him. 

I go to the Arrow Meadow. There is a big crowd for Willie Watson at The Victrola Stage. He plays an acoustic guitar and has a synthesizer in front of him. He’s doing the old, familiar Folk tune: “If I Could Change This World.” He says that he doesn’t have that much time onstage, “I usually tell stories.” For his last song he does “The Midnight Special.” People stand, clap along and sing. He has many devoted fans here today.  

At the back of Hellman Hollow was the Silent Disco. I’d seen this at other events in San Francisco. You put on a pair of headphones and went onto a designated dance floor. I was a bit surprised at how popular it is. There were hundreds dancing around with headphones on. I’ll try this when there’s not so much live music going on. 

There are certain acts I see every year by chance. I don’t really plan on seeing them, but I happen to be walking by when they’re playing. Such is “Alison Brown and the Compass Bluegrass All Stars featuring Bobby Osborne.” I’m fading a bit and just sit in the back.  
They’ve taken out almost all the picnic tables. I realized how much I depended on them to take a little break and sit somewhere that’s not on the ground. It does make a difference. There’s nowhere to take a real break. The museums and their concessions are too far away. I thought about leaving and visiting the real world, but then I’d notice something coming up on one of the stages and decide to go for it. Hey, it’s only once a year.   
Even with six stages going there are some strange gaps in the schedule where nothing is going on. Or nothing is going on right around me. I can hear the party sound of Ozomatli coming from The Swan. The crowd already takes up the entire meadow. This used to be rare. Now it happens earlier every year. People are showing up for the later acts: Patti Griffin and Sturgill Simpson. I lounge at the back of the crowd. Never saw the stage.   

The Blue Angels roared overhead. Fleet Week and HSB had been on separate weekends for a couple of years, but not this year. 
Even though they were aggravating and drowned out some of the music I still find jet airplanes fascinating. I did get some great views of their aerial display.  
A couple of dogs started fighting. They were spooked by the jet sound and then they went after each other. The Blue Angels soared overhead. Dogs started fighting on the ground.

The Saturday crowd is larger. Robert Earl Keen was a priority. I wanted to get at least a look at the Saturday night party crowd. 
Most people tended to walk on the inner part of the JFK Drive if they were headed east. Those headed west, towards the Towers of Gold Stage tended to use the outside lane. An odd traffic herd instinct. I wound through people and crossed the road. 
It was three o’clock. I considered leaving. If I bailed, it would be the earliest I had ever left HSB. Maybe I’ll just see one more act.

The Towers of Gold Stage has a steep hill that runs along one side of the meadow. There is a view of the stage where Jamey Johnson was playing. I had seen him last year in a similar situation. Just get a spot on the hill and get out of the human traffic. He had a big band with him that looked slick and professional. This was real Country and Western. A change of pace for me.    
They were doing their Petty tribute as I got settled. “Southern Accents” “Room at the Top” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” 
“In Color.” I’ll have to track that song down. They cover the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” Another original: “Willin.’” A great version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.”
They cover Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down.” This could be the greatest trucking song ever. “We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.” 

One of the few real eccentrics left in San Francisco is Frank Chu. He wanders big events like this with a sign warning of alien invasions. He’s still making the scene, but his clothes are torn and frayed. How long can his quixotic quest go on?  

Usually Robert Earl Keen closed The Rooster Stage on Saturday night. There was more room for the party crowd here at the Towers of Gold Stage. The crowd didn’t seem as rowdy. Was it because everyone wasn’t jammed into the smaller Rooster Stage area? Maybe it was because it wasn’t dark yet. I was able to walk through the crowd and get closer.  

I still scribble song titles while I’m at HSB, but now I turn to setlist.fm for guidance. Keen opens with the Grateful Dead song, “Casey Jones.” 
“The Man Behind the Drums.” Keen’s tribute to Levon Helm.
Keen sure sounds like Dylan. He’s barking the lyrics at us. 
“The Rose Hotel.” “Dreadful Selfish Crime” segues into “I Know You Rider.” “If I Were King.” “Shades of Gray.” “Feelin’ Good Again.” This is where I take off.
I’ve learned to look before I leap at HSB. I looked down JFK Drive. There was a  mass of humanity. Yeah, I could get through it eventually, but I opted for the longer route that goes around the Polo Fields. A flock of large geese foraged on the football fields. 
Heard the last song of Buddy Miller at The Rooster Stage. It was tempting to stay for Dan Auerbach. (The Black Keys) but a large crowd was gathering for the last act of the day here. It had been another full day and I bussed it home in time to see Steve Earle and the Dukes online. 
I’ll say it again, live is much better, but it’s hard to beat being able to sit in a chair and see what’s going on onstage. “City of Immigrants” “Warren Hellman’s Banjo” “Dominick Street/The Galway Girl” “Harlan Man” “The Mountain.” “Jerusalem” “Copperhead Road.” 
There was the odd Dragnet beginning to “San Franciscan Nights.” This made up for Eric Burdon not playing it at Stern Grove. The fiftieth Summer of Love was coming to an end. “ Transcendental Blues.” “Fixin’ To Die” “Hey Joe!” Another version of “I Know You Rider.” Funny how some songs keep popping up.
Another powerful performance by Steve Earle with his usual political statements.
      
Sunday. October 8.
Arrived at The Rooster Stage at 11:30 for part of The Secret Sisters. “You Don’t Own Me Anymore.”   
The Secret Sisters were too nice for me. Hot Tuna at the Banjo Stage was my top priority today. I got there in time to see the end of The Sons of the Soul Revivers,  “The Gospel sensations.”   

Hot Tuna Electric. 12:15. It’s still great to see Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy play in Golden Gate Park. This is where it all happened. 
Bubbles swirled in the air. Got there in time for “Trial By Fire.” “I Just Can’t Be Satisfied.” “Talkin’ About You,” a song once covered by The Rolling Stones.   
They’re quite a power trio, with Justin Guip on drums. 
Between songs someone says, “Tuning is overrated.” Pretty sure it was Jorma.
“Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man.” “Watch the North Wind Rise.” “Funky #7.”  
The MC after the set: “Let’s hear it for Hot Tuna. They play something old and aways make it new and challenging.” 

A guy walked around with a large sign: Free Destiny Readings. I saw him later with a guy who wore a tall wizard hat. Guess he was drumming up business for him. 

There was a half hour before the next act, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones. This was a good chance to visit the smallest stage, The Porch Stage. The Sisters Morales were getting tuned up. “The World Goes Around and Around.” Even the acts on the smallest stage have to be talented. The acts that perform on The Porch Stage could make a great event on their own! 
Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones is another act that I see almost every year. It’s usually a case of convenient scheduling. He’s got one of those great soothing show business voices. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen ...”
Alvin dedicates the first song to flood victims across the country. It’s a Big Bill Broonzy song: “Southern Flood Blues.” Then into: “Haley’s Comet.” 
Alvin says the next song is “A thirties political song. It’s as true today...” “This World Is In a Bad Condition.” It was originally done by The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.   
Alvin admits that anyone who has recorded this next song sings it better than he can, “But I wrote it!” “Long White Cadillac.”
“Johnny Ace Is Dead.”
Next is “an existential song” that Alvin says he’s never done at HSB. “Out of Control.” His brother usually sings it. Are they feuding again? The first line is, “I scored some speed in San Berdino...”
“Fourth of July.” A cover of Spirit’s “I Got A Line On You.” 

I made an attempt to see “Lampedusa Featuring Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Emmy Lou Harris, Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams.” From the HSB biographies handout: “Lampedusa is part of a series of shows that aim to raise awareness of the 65 million displaced people around the world as a result of war, conflicts and disasters.” 
This was being held at The Rooster Stage. It was a poor choice for an act with this star power. Thousands streamed in. It was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at The Rooster Stage. I lurked way in the back during “Refugee” another tribute for Tom Petty. It was just too crowded. 
I got a “Bacon Melt” from one of the food vendors near The Rooster Stage. I found a spot and took a total break from the crowds. I could hear the rocking sounds of Nelson & Promise of the Real coming from the Swan Stage. “Die Alone.” “Four Letter Word.” Another Tom Petty tribute: “American Girl.” “Runnin’ Shine.” “High Times.” “Something Real.” “Forget About Georgia,” a breakup song about a woman, not the state. “Find Yourself.” The singer talked about being in Neil Young’s band. 

The Flatlanders. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Butch Hancock.  
I should know the songs better by now. Well, I do just see them once a year. Usually they played the now gone Arrow Stage on Saturday night. Today they’re at The Banjo Stage. There’s still plenty of room, but it didn’t have that Saturday night vibe.       
“Reap What You Sow.” “Standing at the Station.” “From the Cradle to the Grave.” “Julia.”  
There is more Blue Angels jet action today. We get buzzed.  

I reconnoitered near the back of the Swan Stage. Some millennial buskers formed a circle near me. Several were in HSB fashion. Straw hats and blue jean bib overalls. Somehow I knew they just didn’t step off the farm. They had a couple of guitars, a banjo and a mandolin. I’ll admit that I thought they would be an aggravation, but they did know what they were doing. “Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Those close enough to hear gave them a round of applause.

A former floor colleague had tipped me about Courtney Barnett (Thanks Cliff!) so I knew about the female rocker from Down Under. She’s teamed with Kurt Vile in a new band: The Sea Lice. I just love that name: Kurt Vile.
The set list from setlist.fm: “Over Everything.” “Fear Is Like A Forest.” “Continental Breakfast” A couple of Courtney Barnett songs: “Out of the Woodwork” “Avant Gardener” “On Tour (A Kurt Vile song) “Depreston” “Untogether.”  
Courtney and Kurt wore matching plaid shirts. I’m sure there’s a joke there somewhere. How Grunge can you get?

It was deep into the “Hardly” part of HSB. After the Grunge set it wasn’t that far back to the Towers of Gold for Cheap Trick. Would every former juvenile delinquent at HSB head for this area? I got a spot on the hill. An audio tape took us through the history of the band, concluding with the question: “Are you ready for the greatest fucking Rock and Roll band in the world?”
“Hello There.” “Big Eyes.” “California Man” “Ain’t That A Shame” a cover of the Fats Domino song. “Baby Loves to Rock” with “Long Time Coming.” 
Cheap Trick’s antics were amusing, but after a while I made a move. There was a long bass solo. They did a cover of “I’m Waiting For the Man” a Velvet Underground song. Guess it’s back to the roots.  

I don’t listen to much radio now, but I do check out Grinder’s Grooveyard on local radio station KPOO on Monday nights. Rockin’ Jim Grigsbee has been a longtime DJ and record collector. 89.5 FM. Every show is a look at music history. One Monday night, he played a wild instrumental by one Junior Brown. I did some research on Youtube and found wild footage of him playing live. He would close this year’s festivities on The Rooster Stage!
Junior Brown plays a “guit-steel” double neck guitar. It’s an electric guitar with a steel pedal guitar. It creates a wild, rowdy, roadhouse sound. Junior sure looks like an original good old boy. “Who’s ready for some twanging?”
“Party Lights.” “The party is over for me.” “Lifeguard Larry.” A hilarious “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead. “I Hung It Up.” “Long Walk Back From San Antone.” “Freeborn Man.” “Deep In the Heart.” “Another Honky Tonk Burned Down.”
It’s not as crowded here as earlier in the day. I can easily walk up to the sound tent for a good view. HSB seems to be winding down. Many are headed to the 25th Avenue exit. Junior does have many fans left, and he’s rocking the place. The songs are short.  
“Between Anger and Despair.” “Guit-Steel Blues.” “Highway Patrol.” “Give Me a Little Old Fashioned Love.” “The Better Half.” “I Wouldn’t Buy a Used Car From Him.” “Hang Up and Drive.” “Blues Power.” “Surf Medley.” “So Close Yet So Far Away.”
What better way to end this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival than Junior’s cover of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.” 
Got home in time to see some of Lucinda Williams online. Going three days in a row is a little crazy, but it’s close to my neighborhood.  
It could have been an odd year at HSB after the tragedy in Las Vegas. As the weekend went on people seemed to forget about it. I know I did. The threat of terrorism means things will never be the same. It was a bit of a relief that nothing happened.  




Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Eric Burdon at Stern Grove


Eric Burdon and the Rock and Roll Rebels at Stern Grove. July 16, 2017. 

Stern Grove is a unique venue out in the avenues of San Francisco’s Sunset district. For eighty years free concerts and cultural events have been presented there on Sunday afternoons. The shows are free and usually attract a large crowd. I took a casual look at the schedule and flipped when I saw Eric Burdon would be there! 
Stern Grove is closer to the ocean. This means fog. The performances start at two o’clock, so the sky usually does clear up. It’s a pleasant hike under the canopy of eucalyptus to the Grove. The Grove is in a long valley that leads to Lake Merced and then the Pacific Ocean. The two steep hills are covered in eucalyptus trees. It’s not bowl shaped, but it does form a natural amphitheater. There is a large stage in The Concert Meadow. Chairs are set up, but most people spread a blanket in the lawn area or climb the steep hill.   
There are some picnic tables along the back. They are given away in a lottery. The Stage and the Concert Meadow were renovated a few years ago. The stage is larger and there are more facilities. Concrete dividers were put in around the Concert Meadow.
Near the Grove is one of my favorite hidden spots in San Francisco. The Trocadero Clubhouse is a rustic white building. It looks a bit like a gingerbread house  that blends into the trees. It was one of the first buildings put up in this part of the City. A post in Outsidelands.org says that it was a residence at first, but it was in a remote location that encouraged its use as a roadhouse. This was especially convenient during Prohibition. It’s now used for lectures and events before the concerts.  
Stern Grove was built with smaller crowds in mind. Vintage photos show polite, well dressed crowds. Most of the programs featured the San Francisco Symphony, Opera and Ballet. Eventually shows that featured Jazz, Folk, Rhythm and Blues and Rock were added to the schedule. Other artists that will perform this year are Kool & The Gang. Nicki Bluhm & The Gamblers. WAR (who Eric Burdon joined forces with in the Seventies.) Mavis Staples. International acts this year include Los Angeles Azules and Amadou & Marian.
It’s a great venue, but bigger crowds did lead to problems. The Concert Meadow would get too crowded. Parking is usually a problem anywhere in San Francisco. The staff and volunteers did learn how to deal with the larger crowds. As people enter the Concert Meadow they get a hand stamp. Eventually only those with a hand stamp are allowed back into the Meadow, so there is a limit to how many can get into the Meadow. I don’t know what the capacity is on the hill. I was early, but I wanted to walk around the area and check out Pine Lake. The weather was almost perfect. 

Past the Grove the park has a trail between the two hills. The bluffs form a huge rectangle. The hill on one side has houses that have a great view of the park. They’ve always fascinated me. The backyards are steep, but the back porches look like they would be a great place to hang out. It wasn’t a good bird day. Maybe they were scared off by the event. There were a couple of Red Tailed Hawks. 

It’s always better to be able to see the musicians and performers, but Stern Grove was built for more classical music events. There’s a lawn next to the Grove that has no view of the stage. It’s still popular, especially with families that need more room to spread out.     
It was time to find a spot. I went up the hill into the eucalyptus trees. Most of them were planted about a hundred years ago. That’s about their life expectancy. What to do with the eucalyptus has become a problem in parts of the City. There were plenty of big roots and stray branches. I’ve sat on the hill, but I forgot how steep and awkward it was to get around. 
Any distant view of the stage would be acceptable for me today. I found myself a spot in the roots of a tree. My view of the stage through the trees wasn’t that bad. The binoculars helped. It was hard to get settled. I’ve been coming out here for years, but I forgot how steep the hill is. It’s a constant battle against gravity to stay in place. No matter how you position yourself, it’s steep enough that there’s a constant slow sliding down the hill. 
There are some small, relatively flat areas on the hill where people have thrown out a blanket and set up picnics. Some even use small tables. I guess you have to get here early for that. There were ingenious little spots on rocks and fallen trunks. 
The place was filling up, and there were fewer visible “spots.” It’s not very encouraging for people who had just arrived. People still show up at events like this at the last minute and then they’re amazed that anyone else is there. It’s always more crowded than they expected. Stern Grove draws a big crowd for every show. Why are they so surprised? It looked like the crowd reached to the top of the hill. People just arriving might have to climb way up the hill to find a spot. Getting up the hill meant navigating a maze of loose dirt, tree branches and felled trees. Footing was difficult. 
Even some obviously athletic types were having a hard time getting up the hill. I was surprised to watch a guy carrying a skateboard stumble and almost wipe out. Another guy wearing a bike helmet was obviously struggling on the way up.
Our MC today is Liam Mayclew from KPIX TV. He’s a friendly local TV personality. He’s a veteran of these events, but he does sound excited to be here today to see Eric Burdon. Before some routine announcements he says hello to, “The people on the hill.” 
Stern Grove does have a good vibe about it. People are usually in a good mood here. People seem to be more excited today than usual. Some are still floating along on Summer of Love nostalgia. It’s not really a Summer of Love event, but Eric Burdon just played the Monterey Pop Festival’s fiftieth anniversary show. He’s one of a very few that played at both the original and the fiftieth anniversary.  

The Stone Foxes will open up and get things started. They’re a local band that have played at Stern Grove before. “We’re glad to be back ...” They have a classic Seventies Rock sound. The first song is an interesting rocker: “Everybody Knows.” They play twanging riffs that sound like The Rolling Stones. 
Spence Koehler is the front man. He really does sound like Ray Davies! He’s a good performer and stalks the stage, generating excitement. 
The Members of the Oakland School of the Arts Choir come onstage to sing “Eye for Love.” Bringing the choir out at Stern Grove is a nice touch. The place was really built for choral singing.     
  They have a Stones sound, but they’re not very loud. Maybe they’re victims of the old keep the volume down until the main act trick. “If I Die Tonight.”
They do an old Blues song the Stones covered long ago: “I’m a King Bee.” The Stone Foxes do a more Heavy Mental version. They do get the afternoon off to a great start.  
It’s time for intermission and an equipment changeover!  

I rearrange my position to the other side of the tree trunk. The view is the same, maybe even a little bit better. I have more of a perch to sit on, so I’m not sliding down the hill as much. People are still arriving and struggling up the hill. 

The Stern Grove programs lists the headliners today as: “Rock and Roll Rebels. Eric Burdon & The Animals.” I remember first hearing about them. The band name struck us as being very cool. “They’re Animals, man!”  
The band starts with a very familiar instrumental intro: “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” It’s an old Cannonball Adderley song. “Have mercy on me!” 
Eric Burdon gets an enthusiastic introduction from Liam and bounces onstage to “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” I think of it as a Three Dog Night song, but a later Google search reminded me that Randy Newman wrote it. It was a surprising choice for the first song, but the crowd was into it. Everyone knows this one. 
Burdon is dressed all in black. It makes his head of white hair more striking. He’s a small guy, but his voice is still huge. He doesn’t look or act like someone who is seventy-five. From my perch up on the hill, I’m able to hone in on him with the binoculars.  
Burdon talks about meeting Bo Diddley. They play “Bo Diddley Special... The Story of Bo Diddley.” It’s a tribute to a pioneer of Rock and Roll that many have forgotten.  
“This is a song I wrote when I was young so that I could sing it when I got old.”  “When I Was Young.” It’s the first of the songs that I came to hear. 
The song becomes a medley with “Inside Looking Out.” I’m more familiar with the Heavy Mental version immortalized by Grand Funk Railroad, but Burdon wrote the song and recorded it first.    

Burdon talked about being in Monterey recently. “I just played there for the Fiftieth anniversary.” Burdon is one of the few survivors of that event so he drew a lot of attention from the media. “People kept asking me how it happened ... Was it the love or the drugs?” After a pause Burdon confesses: “It was the drugs!” Few would admit this in today’s anti-drug PC climate.   

“It’s My Life.” Another song that really gets me. It was another Sixties song of  freedom. “It’s a hard world to get a break in...” How did this little guy from England write these songs that hit us teenagers in Chicago right between the eyes? Burdon was older than us, but he had his finger on teenage angst. Music is all about the emotional connection.  
Burdon sings “Bring It On Home To Me.” The Animals recording of this was the first version of the Sam Cooke song that I remember hearing. It’s a song that can test the vocal cords.
“Don’t Bring Me Down” was one of the original songs of teenage alienation. It wasn’t just the feedback guitar. Burdon was older than me, but he sure understood teenage angst.     
  “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is another classic. Burdon gets some audience participation. Prompted by his cue, the crowd sings the song’s last line. 
  
I scanned the crowd in the Concert Meadow from my perch. Most were standing and dancing. It looked like everyone was having a great time at this, probably one of the last Summer of Love anniversary events. There was a wave of recognition when the opening chords of “House of the Rising Sun” started. This was the song most of the crowd had come to hear. 
The traditional classic had touched everyone here at some point in their lives. It was an old song when it was released. How much did any of us know about “real Blues” or life in general back then? Well, we thought we knew. What could a bunch of grammar school kids in Chicago have in common with the short singer from England? There was the Blues connection.   

Burdon dedicates the next song to those who went to Vietnam: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” It also became a song we sang at miserable jobs while watching the time clock. “If it’s the last thing we ever do!” Burdon had a knack for writing songs that became anthems for many of us.   

People had started leaving after “House of the Rising Sun.” Stern Grove can be a hard place to get out of. There would be more room in the Concert Meadow, and I had the precious hand stamp. At least I could find a spot to stand in. 
I had a much better view for the last songs.  We get a Summer of Love surprise: “For What It’s Worth.” As usual, Burdon makes the song his own. “There’s something happening here ... But it just ain’t exactly clear ...” 
People have been dancing during the show, but everyone gets on their feet for Sam and Dave’s R&B classic, “Hold On, I’m Coming.” This is a party song everyone remembers!  
The crowd is loving it and nobody wants to leave. After “Hold On” MC Liam Mayclew Liam really works the crowd to cheer for one more song. I didn’t realize it until later, but they didn’t play “San Francisco Nights.” I thought that was kind of odd. Really expected to hear that one today. Burdon and the band must have made a quick exit. It was another day of great memories at Stern Grove.  
 

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Chicago Blues Festival 2017


It was graduation season and I was visiting Chicago for family festivities. I got a pleasant surprise after booking my flight. The Chicago Blues Festival would be happening while I was there! It really would be back to the roots.  
Since 1984 the Chicago Blues Festival has been drawing large crowds to the Lakefront. For years I had been monitoring the action from online and telling myself that some year I would go. The Chicago Blues Festival is still a free event.   
It was a hot day. Sunny and in the nineties. I took the train downtown. It blasted through the northern suburbs and the Northwest side of Chicago. The route from the Edison Park station had once been my commute. Some of the passengers were in Cubs gear and headed to Wrigley Field.
The tracks enter downtown and end at a platform in the new Ogilvie Transportation Center. Union Station was across the street. A few people from the train were headed to the Festival and walked up Randolph towards the lake.
Downtown was relatively quiet on Sunday. There wasn’t that frantic weekday buzz. A few blocks from Michigan Avenue I could hear electric Blues echoing in the canyons of steel and glass. A large mural honoring Muddy Waters on State Street had been dedicated on Thursday, and the Mud Morganfield Band, with Muddy’s oldest son, had played at the ceremony.  
  Blues is revered as a part of Chicago music history now. It’s amusing to see the civic recognition. The city fathers were not big fans fifty years ago. The Blues is now appreciated as a Chicago art form, and Blues bars are a big tourist attraction. 
The music got louder. It was like a magnet. I crossed Michigan Avenue and went under a large banner: Blues Village. The site of the Festival had been shifted a bit north to Millennium Park. It was still near the lakefront. The Festival had centered on the Petrillo Music Shell near the Art Institute. Now the main stage would be the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. 

Even a partial list of the Blues greats that have performed at the Festival is challenging. Here are some names I cherry picked from the Wikipedia entry. There are many more:    
Albert King, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bobby Rush, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry (with a cameo by Keith Richards!) Etta James, Homesick James, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Jimmy Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, Johnnie Taylor, Johnny Winter, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, Magic Slim, Matt Murphy, Mick Taylor, The Neville Brothers, Otis Rush, Pinetop Perkins, Ray Charles, Sam Lay, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sugar Blue, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon, and many more.    
Muddy Waters passed away a year before the first Blues Festival. Howling Wolf had been gone for seven years by then.  
I remember freaking out when I heard about Keith Richards’ surprise appearance with Chuck Berry in 1986. A large exhibition of Rolling Stones memorabilia was being shown at Chicago’s Navy Pier. “Exhibitionism” was approved by the Stones and they provided many relics, including clothes and the equipment they used in their very early years. It certainly wasn’t as exciting as seeing a live show, but it was a fun exhibition, and there is more than a nod to the Stones’ debt to the great Bluesmen.   
  
It was still early. 12:30. There are five stages. My first stop was at one of the larger stages, the Budweiser Crossroads Stage on the “South Promenade.” Beer sponsors are important. It was the loss of beer sponsorship that was the last straw for the San Francisco Blues Festival. Another sponsor is WDCB, “Chicago’s Home for Jazz!” The station provided the invaluable programs that were being handed out by volunteers.
A square of Blues related booths led to a stage area where chairs were set up. It’s a laid back scene. Blues Festival veterans have set up under the trees. They have lawn chairs and coolers. They’ll accept a partial view of the stage to be in the shade.     
I had just missed the raucous antics of Tail Dragger, but I got there in time for: “The Blues Disciples with special guest Ms. Erica Johnson & Milwaukee Slim.” They were rocking out as I walked up. They dedicate the second song to Lou Pride: “I’d Rather Go Blind.” “Something told me it was over ...”  
The band brings it down while we get a show business style introduction to Milwaukee Slim. He launches into “Big Boss Man.” “You’re just tall, that’s all.” Milwaukee Slim is pretty tall himself. I wonder if he’s any relation to Fillmore Slim. They play a real Chicago Blues classic, Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.”    
The Mississippi Juke Joint Stage is inside a very large white canvas tent. It looks like it could hold a thousand people. Inside the entrance is a large booth handing out information: “Visit Mississippi!” The tent is great protection from the sun and there are plenty of chairs set up.   
J.J. Thames is doing another version of “I’d Rather Go Blind.” She’s the “Mississippi Blues Diva.” J.J. Thames sounds great, but I want to see what the rest of the festival looks like. After a couple of songs I go to the nearby Front Porch Stage. It’s on the rooftop of the Harris Theater. 
It’s a smaller stage. The Mud Morganfield Band is playing some rocking Chicago Blues. Larry “Mud” Morganfield is the oldest son of Muddy Waters. A small crowd stands in the heat and enjoys their authentic Chicago Blues sound. The band members look old. It must be unusual for them to be playing outdoors in the sunlight. 
The nearby Blues Village is a square of grass that is ringed with Blues related booths. There is the Blues Kids Foundation, the Windy City Blues Society, Koko Taylor’s Celebrity Aid Foundation and The Eddie Taylor Blues Foundation. The home office of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation is at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, the former site of the Chess recording studios. There is the Southwest Airlines Blues Lounge. It’s a small area with seats for interviews and panel discussions. 

I still miss the San Francisco Blues Festival. It’s been gone for almost ten years now. The San Francisco Blues Festival was a chance to get together with like minded individuals and enjoy a great lineup of Blues bands. We would meet at “the little tree” in the back of Fort Mason’s Great Meadow. Over the years we saw many of the same Blues greats that are listed above. After thirty-seven years creator and producer Tom Mazzolini had to end it. I can’t say I went to every one, but I went to most of them. It was always one of the best music events of the year. You’ve got to hand it to Chicago. Not only do they have a free Blues Festival, but they still have a Lollapalooza there!

Back at the Blues Village, it’s a laid back scene. It was still early on a Sunday. It would get more crowded as the day went on. I’ll assume it was a little rowdier on Saturday night. 
People who attended the Chicago Blues Festival in its early years told me that the first Festivals were looser. There was no limit to the alcohol people could bring with them. Groups rolled in kegs, and there were crowd problems. A more family atmosphere was encouraged. Chicago police were keeping an eye out today. It looked like a reasonable amount of booze was winked at. There were plenty of vendors selling beer and wine at the Festival. 

Zakiya Hooker would play at the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage. She’s the daughter of John Lee Hooker. I wanted to see at least part of her act, but there’s some kind of glitch with the sound. I wait for a while, but there’s too much going on at the other stages to have much patience. I bail. 

It was time for a real break. I was a little surprised to get a booth at the Park Grill. After a Thai Crab Sandwich I was ready for the summer heat again. I consulted the handy program. My plan was to see Rick Estrin & The Nightcats at the Budweiser Crossroads Stage. I had seen them many times in North Beach and expected some great rocking keyboards. 
They open with “What I’m Talking About.” Rick Estrin looks like the ultimate hep cat. He has an almost Beatnik, prototype hipster look. They do the song about buying a suit, “Wrap It Up.” “Easy Come, Easy Go.” The band is hot and tight, but maybe I should be looking for and listening to some more Chicago style Blues. 

There was a Blues scene in San Francisco. Much of it centered on Grant Street in North Beach. It was convenient for me. Some great bands played at The Saloon and The Grant and Green, but Chicago Blues always had the harder edge that I craved.  
I saw many of the great Bluesmen before I left Chicago in 1976. You could do the inevitable math. It was obvious that they weren’t going to be around long. They seemed ancient to me even in the Seventies. I was chasing legends. I knew that someday I would brag about seeing them. 
Muddy Waters saw the resurgence of interest in the Blues from young white Rock fans searching for the roots of the British invasion. He talked other Blues bands into playing at clubs like Alice’s Revisited, Kingston Mines and The Quiet Knight. It was a little safer to see live Blues.  
So I got to see Muddy Waters. Howling Wolf. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Otis Rush. Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins. B.B. King played in the gym of Loyola University. I’ll always remember he stayed around long after the show shaking hands and talking about the Blues. The Siegel- Schwall Blues Band played great live shows.  
One of my favorites was Hound Dog Taylor. He played at a bar near the Loyola el tracks, I think it was called Gulliver’s. The place stayed open until 5 a.m. Let’s just say it had a lax ambiance. Hound Dog would grind out Blues for hours on his slide guitar.

It’s back to the shade and relative comfort of the Mississippi Juke Joint Stage. The band plays an instrumental while everyone gets ready for Denise LaSalle, a matriarch of the Blues. She uses a walker and sits in front of the band. There’s no doubt about who’s in charge during “I’m the Queen.” We’re in the presence of Blues royalty. 
People are dancing in the seats near the stage. There’s still more room in the back for people to chill out, relax and watch the show. It’s easy to walk up and get a closer look from the side of the stage. She sings a charged “Remember About You.”
I walk to the back of the huge tent. The crowd is into it. There is more dancing at the seats and in the aisles. After “Down Home Blues” the crowd gives her a big ovation.  
One guy’s tee shirt catches my eye. “Disco Demolition Army.” It was an artifact from a pivotal event in Western Civilization, the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Park in 1979. There can’t be too many of these shirts left around. The shirt looked torn and ragged. 
The guy wearing the shirt looked torn and ragged. He was probably about my age. He had that look. This guy had been around. There were plenty of miles on him. He had a mustache and small beard on his wrinkled, pock marked face. He wore glasses, but you wouldn’t mistake this guy for a four eyed nerd. I didn’t notice at first, but he is an amputee. He was applauding by banging the stump of his arm against his remaining hand. Nothing was going to stop him from showing his appreciation for the Queen of the Blues. There can’t be too many guys like this still around.    

I went for a stroll on the promenade. There was a row of booths for sponsors. One of them was for the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Bureau. I thought it was odd to see a rival for the tourist dollar here, even if they paid to be a sponsor.   
One of the first booths was the Rosa’s Lounge booth. A band had set up in front and they were doing some impromptu jamming. There was no stage. The band just started blasting at eye level. They were loud and they were rocking. A crowd gathered. These guys were stealing the show. I should have found who they were, but conversation wasn’t convenient. The song became recognizable. “The Same Thing.” I did a time check. 4:40. Time flies when you’re having fun. 

The Festival isn’t far from the Crown Fountain. When we were kids many Chicago parks had a “sprinkler.” Water was constantly shooting out of a large pipe coming out of the ground. The water would spray out of the top and cover a small concrete area. It wasn’t a swimming pool, but the water gave us a welcome break from the heat. Like other simple things it provided us with hours of imaginative diversion. Parents got a break too. The big question was: “Can I go in the sprinkler?” The answer was usually yes.  
The Crown Fountain is the modern version of our “sprinkler.” People are drawn to it to get out of the heat. The fountain has two towers. Human faces are projected on the towers by embedded LED lights. It’s an unlikely combination of water and electricity. A timed release of water sprays out of the mouths of the projected faces. Kids run in the water and the Chicago wind spreads the spray. It’s a very popular spot today. 
The Cloud Gate is a large modern, metallic sculpture. I think its popularity was surprising. It is a huge piece of stainless steel that wraps around itself. Chicagoans quickly named it: “The Bean.” The surface is shiny and it creates some slightly distorted reflections with a Fun House carnival effect. People are constantly walking around and through it while taking pictures. There’s a unique view of the stages and booths of the Blues Festival reflected on the surface of “The Bean.”  
  
Back at the Mississippi Juke Joint tent, The Queen of the Blues was still onstage. She was lecturing the crowd about vaginal orgasms. There is the snap. There is the crackle. There is the pop. She prefers a man who can make all three possible. She’s very close to losing her G rating here. LaSalle goes right up to that line, but people were more amused than uncomfortable. The biology lesson leads into “Don’t Mess With My Toot. 
I walked around the back of the Front Porch Stage. Mud Morganfield was trudging towards me. Maybe it was the heat, but he looked stressed out. He carried his guitar case. I decided to at least say hi. I hesitated. He did look stressed out. “Nice show.” He said thanks and marched on. Was he trying to figure out where the next gig was? 

Another stop at the Budweiser Crossroads Stage for Melvia “Chick” Rogers. She sings “I’m a Woman” the female version of the Willie Dixon classic. “I’d make love to a crocodile!” Rogers fronts a big band of Rhythm and Blues veterans, complete with horns. The last song is “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” Things are winding down. At the end of her set the announcer says, “See you in 2018!” It may be over at this stage, but the action at the Pritzker stage has hardly begun.    
   
The Festival has a solid lineup, but it doesn’t have any huge Pop music names. I’m used to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass where there’s at least a couple of very popular crossover acts like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton or Kris Kristofferson. Last year Cindy Lauper played there. Believe me, I’m not complaining about Chicago’s lineup. I’ve learned to avoid the “big” acts in a festival setting. 
Things don’t even get started at the Pritzker stage until 5 p.m. People have gathered in the seating area, but it’s still easy to get around on the back of the lawn. Ronnie Baker Brooks and his band play “Times Have Changed.” 
There’s too much steel and glass here for me. Speakers hang from a latticework of large pipes that hang overhead.
Brooks and the band do a great version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Many in the crowd get up and dance to the Chicago anthem. 
Every once in a while a young musician is proclaimed the savior of the Blues. Gary Clark Jr. is the latest to be given the honor and duty. I had seen Gary Clark Jr. recently in San Francisco, so I decided to start the trek back to the suburbs. If you get a chance, check him out!  
Are the Blues dead? It has fallen out of favor before. It sure seemed to be thriving this weekend in Chicago. The many fans enjoying the acts here show that the Blues is still alive and kicking in Chicago.