Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Arrow Stage
Sunday, Oct. 2
By Nick Dedina and Mark Hedin

The skies were blue and the sun was shining again. Everything was right with the world in general, and, more specifically, with the microclimate surrounding the Arrow Stage on Sunday morning. It was such a nice morning, in fact, that people came early to claim spots, meet up with old friends and have breakfast long before the music started. There was even a throng of young retro-hippies playing hacky sack and practicing beard growth on the left side of the stage.

The South Austin String Band came out right on schedule and immediately proved that they can take the spotlight away from a small leather ball, as the hippies dropped the hacky sack and immediately started dancing to the band's music. The SASB's setlist alternated between raucous, rock-muscled bluegrass and more sensitive medium tempo alt-country tunes that recalled bands like the Jayhawks and the old L.A. Laurel Canyon scene of the early '70s. The band's use of acoustic instruments such as the fiddle and mandolin gives their rock a different feel, and the quickly growing crowd responded to everything, including a Django Reinhardt-styled gypsy swing cut, a hillbilly rave up about a bad night of drinking, and a couple of fine rock tunes which extol the virtues of Northern California (nice going for a Texas band!). The SASB did their job well -- the crowd is in party mode right off the bat.

Bay Area favorites the Hot Buttered Rum String Band pumped up the bluegrass quotient even more, bringing even greater legions of dancers up to the front of the stage (one group of dexterous women proved that it's possible to dance, drink, hug one another, and mix mimosas all at the same time). The HBRSB also added rock elements to their sound, reaching to San Francisco's psychedelic past (was that the Dead's "Sugar Magnolia" they covered?) to prove that traditional country folk, rock and jazz flute still works together after all.

The Hot Buttered Rums -- who even did a tune about touring in their cooking oil powered car -- were called out for an encore. Not bad for the second act. Has any second-billed festival act ever been given so much time on stage before? The Bill Evans String Summit came out next, just in time for the city's famous fog to start rolling in, taking the blue sky away.

The crowd, huge by now, didn't seem to mind. Bill Evans, who has the misfortune of sharing a his moniker with the brilliant, long departed jazz pianist of the same name, leads a group that played some of the most technically proficient and authentic bluegrass at the festival, though they also calmed the crowd down and lost about 90 percent of the dancers that the first two acts built up. Whether this was because of their ultra-speedy tempo, some lack of projected energy, or irresistible attractions on other stages can't be known for sure -- but it may well have been the tempo of their songs.

Evans & Co. played at such velocity that catastrophic levels of bodily injury could've resulted if people, even those with hacky sack-conditioned limbs, tried to keep up with the speed of their music. When they ended and drew a big response, one audience member confided, "This is the life! I can't wait for grad school to be over -- this must be what people with jobs get to do all the time." Who would have the heart to tell her that the working stiffs only do this once a year?

An enthusiasic, comfortably crowded audience was back on hand to witness banjo player J.D. Crowe and the New South's first-ever Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival appearance, which the band met with an instrumental run through melodies of their signature songs. With Ricky Watson singing and playing guitar, they ripped their way through "Take Me Back," "Ten Degrees," "Katy Hill," "Gone on Before," and Bill Monroe's "Molly and Tenbrooks" On the perimeter of the lawn, the aisle crowded with dancers.

Crowe's always had a particular ear for a good song, and provided one more highlight with "Lefty's Old Guitar" by Dave Maggard and Jack Spencer, a tribute to Mr. Frizzell. "Tennessee Border," "You Can Have Her," and "Back to the Barroom" followed. Of course, there was one more song the band just had to do. And they didn't disappoint. Crowe harkened back to the title track of his 1975 debut album, his very own bluegrass standard, "The Old Home Place."

The crowd thinned a bit for Nashville-via-New York's Laura Cantrell. Going up opposite Steve Earle and friends, at a Rooster Stage song workshop, or Ricky Skaggs at the Banjo Stage will do that to a gal, but her opening tribute to Rose Maddox belied no lack of enthusiasm.

"It's a beautiful, bright, sunny day, but we're just gonna go to the dark side for a moment," she said, introducing "Poor Ellen Smith."

Songs by Lucinda Williams ("Send Me a Letter") and George Jones' "The Old, Old House," graced by tasty pedal steel, followed.

With her band The Rage, Rhonda Vincent, in an emerald velour vest, jeans and a rhinestone mandolin strap, stormed the stage next, tearing right into "You Can't Take it With You" and "Driving Nails in My Coffin" before her song for Bill Monroe: "Is the Grass Any Bluer on the Other Side?"

Given Vincent's exuberant, youthful demeanor it may have come as a shock to some when she identified as her own daughter the woman she said fiddle player Hunter Berry had moved twice to be with.

Martha White Flour got generous notice and some crowd sing-along on the flour brand's theme song. Introducing banjo player Kenny Ingram, Vincent said how honored she was to be playing alongside someone she used to hear on the radio in her childhood. Ingram earned his props with his instrumental "Road Rage that followed. Plainly, the set was far too short for the energy the band was putting out. It seemed like they were just getting under way when they had to go.

To the delight of the throng of standees dancing at stage right, Peter Rowan's band, up next, lit right in to "Midnight Moonlight," a song from an album that may in some ways have put Rowan on the map, Old & In the Way, his classic with Jerry Garcia on banjo, Vassar Clements on fiddle, David Grisman on mandolin and John Kahn on bass.

Rowan, looking sharp in a midlength coat and a big 10-gallon hat, stepped out with a very natilly attired Tony Rice -- in a suit, yellow tie and handlebar mustache -- on guitar and the equally fetching Sharon Gilchrist and Bryn Bright on mandolin and bass, respectively.

"My name's Peter Rowan," he said. "You may know me by other names, but I'll stick with that today."

On "Armagideon," he sang of a soldier's change of heart in Iraq: "As I drew my crosshairs I saw my own two boys in Texas."

Trading his guitar for a mandolin, Rowan dedicated "Shady Grove" to Garcia. It featured a lengthy, melodic solo by Bright on bass. She had another on "Cold Rain and Snow," a song familiar to the assorted dancing Deadheads, which also featured ethereal runs from Rice. If Bright's breaks were perhaps the only bass solos of the entire festival, they were certainly deserving of such status.

With the sun setting in the west over the ocean about a half-mile away, the band headed off down "Trail of the Navajo," another Old & In the Way classic. Rowan's desert tale of the card game with death rambled along, with generous solos all 'round, toward its concluding, ululating war whoops. But it took its sweet time getting there, to the delight of the crowd.

It simply couldn't end with that. Citing two recently deceased giants, Jimmy Martin, "The king of bluegrass," and Clemens, "its soul" the onetime Bluegrass Boy closed with "Pray Jesus Take My Soul. (and let the harvest go to seed)."

Dolly Parton'd been playing to a massive crowd over at the Star Stage and Emmylou Harris was under way at the Banjo Stage, but no one who'd stuck around the Arrow Stage early Sunday evening got cheated.

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