Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews
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
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
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
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,
"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
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