Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 4 Reviews

The Peasall Sisters performed two sets- Friday for the kids, and then again on Saturday. The Friday review is immediately below and the Saturday is below that.

Friday, Oct. 1, 10:30 a.m.
Banjo Stage
Reviewed by Sarah Bardeen

The day dawned cold and gray but the Peasall sisters - and thousands of San Francisco schoolchildren - braved the fog to revel in bluegrass. The three sisters - guitarist Sarah, 17, mandolin player Hannah, 13, and fiddler Leah, 11 - were joined by their father Michael on bass. The band opened with the old-time gospel "I'm Using the Bible For a Roadmap," which was slightly affected by cold fingers and sharp voices. When they segued into "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," however, their close sister harmonies shone through, anchored by the dad's great bluegrass voice. Near the end they hit a nice key change, swooping upwards in unison and ending on a chord that sounded like an organ note. At 11, Leah, the fiddler, may turn out to have the best voice of the bunch: she's got a distinctive, full-throated delivery for a girl her age and she can yodel.

They delivered that classic crossover bluegrass hit "Rocky Top" with such panache that if they hadn't been standing right there, this listener would have sworn they were much older. Dad Peasall introduced "Burglar Man" with a preface tailored to his young, urban audience: "If you took an episode of 'Cops' and had a bunch of people from Tennessee write a song about it, this is what it would sound like." But it was their swinging, a cappella version of "Straighten Up and Fly Right" that really caught the kids' attention. As a group, the girls probably shined most on "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?"; they hit the kind of textured unity that makes a bluegrass fan truly happy.

After Warren Hellman and San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman revved the kids up with a school-based roll call, local act Poor Man's Whiskey (calling themselves PMW) took the stage, joined by Bay Area roots scenester Austin DeLone, who narrated bluegrass history for the squirming crowd. DeLone wound them up as best he could: "No MTV, no DVD, no MP3s...that's what it was like at the earlier part of the century. No silent movies! So what did kids do for amusement back then? They did their chores!"

DeLone's history of the genre was fascinating. He went through the roots of traditional instruments, including the fact that the banjo was brought to the U.S. by African slaves and popularized by traveling minstrel shows. He covered bluegrass lore: "some think the fiddle is closest to the human voice, and also the instrument of the devil." Did you know the stand-up bass used to be eight feet tall? DeLone introduced the instruments and by extension the band members one by one, and once all the introductions were over, the group kicked into high gear with "Blue Moon of Kentucky," first Bill Monroe style and then, after an interlude, they emulated Elvis's famous rock 'n' roll version.

The band sped into an exhilarating "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," an Earl Scruggs tune that was popularized by the movie Bonny and Clyde. Unfortunately the crowd couldn't fully hear the solo from the band's stunningly good fiddler. But PMW's easygoing jug-band ambiance - not to mention the Dobro player's ZZ Top-style beard - made them fun to watch. They came off as sweet, scruffy guys who really know the music but aren't purists and love to have fun. Their high energy "Rocky Top" tamed the unruly crowd and was followed by the original "Morning Sunshine," a charming song filled with banter and innuendo. Just as they might have been losing the audience, they called out, "We're gonna do a song now that some of you might know. It's by a band called Outkast." And they launched into the megahit "Hey Ya!," bluegrass style. It was a brilliant move on their part: kids started dancing, the bass player picked up his bass and played it like a guitar, and their cover was sparkling an! d faithful. The group officially closed with "This Land is Your Land." Thanks to the favor curried by "Hey Ya," they actually got the crowd singing along.

PMW continued to play as the kids loaded onto the buses, getting some love for playing classic rock warhorses like "Gimme Three Steps" and "Hotel California."

Saturday, October 2, 11:15 a.m.
Arrow Stage
Reviewed by Aimee Spanier

Saturday dawned cold and cloudy on the Arrow Stage, but its opening act, The Peasall Sisters, were there to thaw the small morning crowd with their traditional songs, warm and sweet as a mocha.

The sisters eased into their set with a gentle rendition of "Will the Circle be Unbroken," drawing it out with sophisticated harmonies that belied their age but reflect their experience. Their entire set was a tribute their remarkable talent, flawless even when they took a break two songs in to tune their instruments. "We tune because we care," said father Michael - who despite his role as parent is in no way the leader of the troupe - as the girls introduced themselves, and cracked jokes about their Baptist heritage.

Highlights of the set, though hard to choose from so many bright notes, included "The Old Church Yard," a song written by their grandfather Jimmy Brasher the girls recently discovered on a tape.

Oldest sister Sarah's original song, introduced by younger sister Leah, was another wonderful moment. "Home to You" is a lovely, simple and heartfelt song, that expressed a young woman's longing - for love? For home? - in an eloquent and sincere way.

It's tempting to talk about the Peasall Sisters as a trio of cute girls with more talent and skill than they have birthdays. Lord knows I've fallen into that here. And while that's accurate, it's too condescending, and it takes away from the fact that they are professionals - real, skilled professional musicians. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is honored to have them play - twice in one weekend - in the early years of what is sure to be a long, delightful career.

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