Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews
Saturday, Oct. 1
By Rachel Turner and Mark Hedin
Long before the first bow was rosined, large crowds gathered at some of the stages in Speedway Meadow. Views were obstructed and concert-goers were elbow to elbow. But at the Arrow Stage, there was a true sense of a family festival. Throughout the day, even as the crowd swelled, the air remained unstifled. Blankets and picnics were sprawled out. There was room to stretch your legs. And the music was varied and entertaining all day. Acts ranged from the rock-and-roll raucousness of Poor Man's Whiskey to the sweet singing of the teenaged Peasall Sisters to the incomparable Gillian Welch.
While the crowds at other stages did not allow for much movement, the crowd at the Arrow stage moved freely. Hula-hoopers and jugglers performed at the perimeter of the crowd. Two-stepping couples and freelance clowns entertained, while bubbles floated over the audience. Children skipped across blankets.
Amid the cold, foggy San Francisco morning, the Peasall Sisters from Nashville, Tennessee took the stage. Their bright, crisp voices and upbeat demeanor gently roused the crowd. The Peasall Sisters come from a large musical family. The three sisters (Leah, 12; Hannah, 14; Sarah, 18) have a songwriting grandfather, an 8-year-old collaborating little brother, as well as a father who plays bass in their band. While most of their songs were bubbly and light, some also displayed a surprising amount of maturity. "Gray County Line" was a haunting, morose number, which lent beautiful contrast to much of their set. The girls' tinny, young voices were anchored by the harmonies of their father.
Event organizer Warren Hellman, appeared on the Arrow Stage dressed like an old-time prison guard. He led a group of rough-looking ne'er-do-wells clothed in black-and-white striped prisoners uniforms. After a bit of rollicking and mayhem, the prisoners broke free and picked up instruments. So began the set of Poor Man's Whiskey. Hoodied hipsters and long-haired hippies bobbed and danced beside each other as the band played. Their rollicking set included fun, humorous songs, the apex of which was a bluegrass cover of "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns ‘N Roses. One ZZ Top lookalike member of the band kept yelling heavy metal references to the crowd, and another played the mandolin like a rock guitar, windmill style.
The day progressed with the Northern California band Perfect Strangers. They soothed the riled-up crowd with concise, traditional songs. Their slow melodies gave a nice contrast to the rock-and-roll stylings of Poor Man's Whiskey.
When Laurie Lewis took the stage, the crowd swelled. Her voice is like a scrapbook; it's memorable and familiar, while invoking an exceptional sense of comfort. Her set included such favorites as "Willie Poor Boy" and the haunting "Val's Cabin," as well as a big-band/tango number. She finished her stage time with "Sleepy-Eyed John," when she picked up the fiddle and brought the reverent crowd to its feet for a standing ovation.
Veteran Nashville songwriter Rodney Crowell took the stage with his four-piece backing band the Outsiders and launched right into his topical "Don't Get Me Started" a diatribe against current affairs - Mideast troubles, domestic economic inequity and much more - East Timor repression, war in general, and the frustrations all that engenders. The line leading into one of the solo breaks might sum it up as well as any: "It makes me angry."
The Outsiders, dressed in jeans and sport coats, playing two chiming electric guitars, five-string electric bass and drums, provided a hard-rocking, melodic framework behind Crowell and his acoustic guitar, joining in on harmony on the choruses. In "Earthbound," the second song, Crowell reminisced about being a "southeast Texas hayseed -- her daddy did not like my kind around."
"I'm Still Learning How to Fly" followed - "I want to be reckless, I want to be vain, I want to make love like a runaway train." Then "Outsider," "Dancing Circles Round the Sun" with succeeding blistering solos by guitarists Jack Hayes, from Adelaide, and Mobile, Ala.'s Will Kimbrough. After "Fate's Right Hand," Crowell reached for a black solid-body electric guitar and led the band through the old chestnut "Tobacco Road."
"This is a song everybody knows," he said afterwards, and the group lit into Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" with Crowell leaving the chorus to the crowd. Crowell thanked the audience, then launched into his classic outlaw rocker "Ain't Living Long Like This."
After leaving the stage very briefly, the band returned and Crowell introduced his encore: "About a twin whose brother had gone off, got HIV. This is about overcoming phobias and letting your true blood back into your life." The song, "Wandering Boy," kicked off with Crowell finger-picking his acoustic:
"I used to cast my judgments like a net/All those California gay boys deserve just what they get/But little did I know there would come a day/When my words would come back screaming like a debt I'll have to pay."
Next up: Hot Rize "in their 27th year, as emcee XXX described them. The quartet, all in suits and ties, kicked it off with Tim O'Brien singing and playing mandolin on Bill Monroe's "Blue Night," with Kentuckian guitarist Jim Hearst, in his debut with the group, tearing off the first of his many hot solos for the afternoon. "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" followed.
Electric bassist Nick Forster made the introductions, including of banjo player Pete Wernick, "the only one of us who's been on the David Letterman show in the last week, Dr. Banjo himself." Wernick's "Sky Rider" instrumental followed, with solos going from Wernick to Hearst to O'Brien and back to Wernick.
O'Brien followed with "Radio Boogie" as the fog billowed in, which Forster followed with a testimonial to local station KPIG`as he introduced O'Brien's "Climbing Up a Mountain."
As O'Brien reached for his fiddle, Forster told the story behind the band's name -- the secret ingredient in Martha White's Self-Rising Flour, sponsor of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs from 'way back. "I'm not sure any of us have ever used Martha White products personally, Forster allowed, but nonetheless, the company's theme song followed.
Still on fiddle following a couple of corny, fiddle-specific jokes, O'Brien led the band through "Empty Pocket Blues," trading molten solos with Wernick.
With O'Brien back on mandolin, the band took on the late Keith Whitley's "You Don't Have to Move That Mountain," with Hearst kicking off the soloing and the other three harmonizing. O'Brien took the lead on "Coleen Malone," joined on the chorus by Forster and Wernick, with another hot solo by Hearst.
"It's kind of cool playing a free concert," Forster said, citing the '60s as he introduced "one of the obscure ones," the Glen Campbell hit by Jimmy Webb, "Wichita Lineman."
O'Brien's "Bending Blades" - "from before we broke up" was next. The ending was slightly off, but no matter. The result of the late original Hot Rize guitar player Charles Sawtell's suggestion for a song about an empty mailbox was next, "This Here Bottle."
And with that, the band took deep bows as the crowd rose to its feet. But quickly, the band returned to encore with "High on a Mountaintop," concluding a set of high lonesome mountain music, hot picking and harmony.
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