Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Banjo Stage
Sunday, Oct. 2
By Mark Hedin and Nate Cavalieri

Sunday morning at the Banjo Stage saw a welcome return of the cloudless skies and balmy temperatures that graced Friday's kickoff but disappeared on Saturday.

The Waybacks, a Bay Area quartet who was joined for the gig by extraordinary local fiddler Darol Anger, started with a brisk 11 a.m. set that hardly took its foot off the gas. Like many others who took the festival stages over the weekend, the band paid homage to San Francisco's musical luminaries. After a set of their own numbers, the lively set culminated with a appropriately psychedelic take on the Grateful Dead's "Cumberland Blues," a tune that the band learned in person from Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Though Weir himself didn't join in for the tune, he would have been proud; the lilting melody was offset by a lengthy, extended, blazing solo by guitarist James Nash. Nash fed his acoustic guitar through effects boxes, emphasizing the "Hardly" aspect of the festival's moniker, and the band followed close behind, digressing for a moment into lilting Celtic-inspired textures before coming back to straight-ahead rocking.

"For all his greatness," said admiring fan David Rector, "Jerry Garcia may never have played that song with as much fire." And the fire at the Banjo Stage was just getting started.

Warren Hellman, the saintly patron behind the five-year-old event, took the stage himself to introduce the next performer, Hazel Dickens. Dickens, a featured act since the festivals' start, is, in Hellman's own words, the event's "heart and soul."

The irony of the friendship between Dickens and Hellman -- a bluegrass matriarch known for singing songs for and about the underprivileged masses and a man of considerable means -- is not lost on the two, and some good-natured ribbing has been a long standing aspect to their friendship. Though the singer has referred to festival's benefactor as a "crazy millionaire" to a reporter or two, she was visibly moved by Hellman's warm introduction as she received the crowd's uproarious applause.

"I'm going to have to stop teasing Warren so much," she said, "if he doesn't stop being so nice to us." And, with a little wink and nod offstage, she cautioned him not to "get too big for his britches" before kicking into one of the weekend's most humbling performances.

Crisply strumming chords on her acoustic guitar and singing in her distinctive plaintive voice, leading the band through robust versions of classics like "Back to Texas," "Lonesome Time," and "Lost Patterns," which she introduced as a song about "relationships and what happens to them during hard times."

On the refrain, Dickens wrung every emotional detail out of the vocal melody, belting out the harmonized lyric, "from all the wearing and the tearing, the caring just walks right out the door."

Even though Dickens pulls no punches in her narratives of life's storm clouds, she introduced the "Heart's Own Love" as a song about the silver lining, offering that she wrote it about a friend who managed a successful relationship against all odds.

But after this brief respite, it was right back to singing through the hard times with "Old Calloused Hands" and an anthemic song she said she'd never before performed live, called "America's Poor," which Dickens has slated to record for a yet-untitled record that will be released in 2006.

"When the lord made the working girl he made the blues," she sang, followed by the refrain of working men and women having their "pockets picked clean while they chase the American dream."

After ending the set with "West Virginia, My Home" and a rousing cover of the Louvin Brothers' "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow," Hellman again took the mic, saying that Dickens is "the reason that we have this festival."

Dickens was also the reason why many of the people were in attendance for the mid-day set. "I happened on Hazel at this festival its first year," said Santa Rosa fan Mark O'Connell, who was attentively parked near the front of the stage, "and I've never missed her yet. There's something about the sound of her voice that gives me chills."

Though Dickens was truly a tough act to follow, Hot Rize alum Tim O'Brien, took the stage to give it a try. Surrounded by a supergroup of sorts that included Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers on banjo and guitar, Chico-based fiddler Casey Driessen, Arkansasian bassist Dennis Crouch and seasoned Denver session drummer Kenny Malone, O'Brien rounded out the morning at the Banjo Stage Together, the group showcased material from O'Brien's two imminent releases, the modern, funky collection "Cornbread Nation," and the more intimate, traditional set "Fiddler's Green."

With Barnes frailing a strong mid-tempo rhythmic pattern on the banjo, they opened with the shanty-inspired title track of the latter, a woeful tale of love lost to the lure of the sea, that was told in rich harmony. Then, O'Brien introduced the droning "Foreign Lander" from the same record by saying "let's hope the troops come home soon."

"It's another one of those mournful songs," O'Brien said, explaining much of the weekend's fare by saying, "The music is pretty, the words are sad."

As the band tuned up, O'Brien offered a little banter to the rapt audience, evoking cheers by saying, "This is a nice party Warren throws, isn't it?" The West Virginian-by-way-of-Nashville added, "Everybody's welcome, including your dog." As guitarist Barnes switched to an electric, O'Brien continued "Hunting season's coming up. This is a song about different dogs and the way they hunt, sort of a 'my dog's better than your dog' kind of thing."

With that, the band kicked into a stomping rendition of "Let's Go Huntin'" from his Cornbread Nation release.

But it was with a gospel-inflected "Moses, Don't Let Pharaoh Overtake You," that O'Brien and his band truly showed their good taste, treating the crowd to a moving reading of the hymn. It was a graceful departure to the rock solid set, and the band bowed out to cede the stage to the other heavy hitters to follow during the afternoon: Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris.

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