Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Banjo Stage
Friday, September 30
By Mark Hedin

The fifth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival kicked off on a gorgeous Friday morning at Speedway Meadows with a program for San Francisco middle school students featuring the Peasall Sisters and "PMW," an abbreviation made with impressionable youngsters in mind for the Sonoma County band Poor Man's Whiskey.

The several hundred students bused into Golden Gate Park had been prepped for the occasion with background information on the history and culture of the music they were to witness, highlighting its multicultural roots and the possibilities for expression it offers for individuals of all descriptions.

"We learned that Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, was born cross-eyed, the youngest of nine children, and was teased and shunned by his peers," said Toni XX, herself an Irish immigrant, who works at the nightclub Slim's, whose staff had booked the festival as a whole.

Highlighting how Monroe had overcome his early challenges to become an international success and an icon to succeeding generations, and how he had paved the way in fusing disparate musical styles, the students were also familiarized with the various instruments characteristic of the music and the diverse cultures from which they came.

As an example to the students of the very real opportunity that musicianship offers even those of a very tender age, the Peasall Sisters - Sarah, 18, on guitar, Hannah, 14, on mandolin and Leah, 12, on fiddle, took the stage, accompanied by their father, Michael Peasall, on bass.

The Peasalls got their start in the First Baptist Church in White House, Tennessee, where Michael Peasall was musical director. It wasn't long, matriarch Sally Peasall said, before demand from audiences around the country for the music Michael Peasall and his daughters made led to them eventually having to quit the church.

The Peasalls have always home-schooled their children, she said - although this family could fill a small classroom by itself - but when it comes to music, they've recently begun taking private instruction on their instruments. Besides the three sisters on stage, there's another four more small fry yapping at their heels - or, for today, playing in the grass while their older siblings played and sang -- including JoJo, 8, the only boy, who's already contributed one song to his older sisters' repertoire.

Following the Peasalls' set came PMW, an at times outrageous collection of seven Sonoma County fellows, who kicked off their lively set parading through the students, dancing and high-fiving as they played "Orange Blossom Special."

Eli Jebediah, with his long scraggly brown hair and beard, gold aviator glasses and blue coveralls looked especially hillbilly as he played the washboard and, once on stage, summoned the band and audience to attention with a whistle.

In the crowd, the students - the most diverse group to attend any of the festival's many performances this weekend - quickly took to their feet, swinging together in circles of a dozen or so, or in pairs linked at the elbow.

"Every year, they get more into it," enthused Frank Fernandez, a parent volunteer at Enola Maxwell Middle School.

As they then introduced themselves, each member of the band also introduced his instrument with a trademark hot lick. Then it was the kids' turn: "San Francisco middle schoolers, are you ready to rock out? I can't hear you!" Jebediah shouted. We all heard soon enough as he led the sixth- seventh- and eighth-graders in succeeding shout-outs.

After a banjo-heavy "Old Mule," the students' next lesson was in volume - specifically, that of the fiddle and banjo that had jumped out from the first two songs.

"Back before people had electricity, they played acoustic music," Jebediah explained. "the loudest instruments tended to be more popular for the dance tunes. That's why the fiddle and banjo are so important." Some more explanatory words on the African origin of the banjo and the amalgamation of musical styles that developed in the South followed, leading into Tony Robinson's mentioning that "people would come from far away, to dance all night till the break of day. When the caller hollered 'do si do' you knew Uncle Pen was ready to go."

Guess what followed. Bill Monroe's kickoff, "Uncle Pen," of course. There was a little more explaining, now of the Dobro, with a few bars of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," when Tony interrupted, saying "I can't take any more of this bluegrass stuff."

Ever accommodating, the band shifted into Elvis Presley mode and, for good measure, after a brief absence, Josh Brough and Jebediah returned to the stage, dressed now in full jailbird suits of black and white stripes: "Jailhouse Rock."

Next up: Jebediah, wearing a long, blue "Sgt. Peppers'" style coat, as conductor Klaus Von Dumplshmidt, introduced Otto Crabbapple, famous Austrian tenor, to sing the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby."

"This is the music of Looney Toons, car commercials, annoying elevator music, the stuff your parents play when they want to impress guests they have over at their house for dinner," Dumplshmidt told the audience.

After "Calamity," a PMW original, Gary Neargarder introduced the guitar and Jebediah's home-made horn, the kazumpet, which found its way into the middle of Django Reinhardt's "Minor Swing," after a brief acknowledgment of the roles guitars and horns play in jazzing things up.

The next instrument featured the drum, introduced as the oldest of them all, and was highlighted in some white boy rap backed by bluegrass instrumentation Josh took to the mic to introduce the finale:

"Music is the great melting pot of influences. The great thing about it is that no matter where you are from or where you are, your original music will always be relevant because it is drawing from the well of everything you have been exposed to in your life. That's what makes it unique. We all grew up here in California, and the music we grew up with and the culture that surrounds us has shaped our sound. Here is a song we wrote ("Mexico") that really sums all that up for us."

Host Warren Hellman then took the stage to thank the children for attending and hasten them on their way back to school for the rest of the afternoon and San Francisco Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman led the students in boisterous cheers of gratitude for the lively respite before they made their way back to the waiting yellow school buses.

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