Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Porch Stage
Saturday, October 1
By Jon Pruett and Nate Cavalieri

The Porch Stage, situated with a bit of a slant - okay, let's not say bit, let's say about 45 degrees uphill, wasn't exactly the prime set-up for watching music. That said, it did have prime real estate, as most anyone who entered into the festival through the park's main entrance passed by the small stage on the way in. For Saturday morning's first show of the day, Anna Egge braved fog, gravity and the constant presence of the equestrian police squad in order to kick things off to an earnest start. Armed with her trusty acoustic, she sang a mixture of emotive singer-songwriter fare balanced out with some folkier, Roger Miller-type tunes. Although the crowd couldn't have been more than just a few dozen strong, they all seemed to know the words. Egge kept them wrapped up in her entrancing songs. She closed her set with a nearly a capella cover of "Edelweiss."

Toshio Hirano unassumingly stepped to the stage as the afternoon slowly began to take shape, the crowds had swollen to massive amounts in parts of the park, but remained fairly thin at the Porch Stage. His soft-spoken manner and thick Japanese accent caused more than a few onlookers to cock their head in wonder. But once the chords began to ring out and Horino began to sing, something began to happen within the crowd. Mild curiosity turned smiles as Horino began to perform pitch-perfect cowboy tunes as if the ghost of Jimmie Rodgers himself was right there on stage. Horino ran through tracks like "T For Texas", "Way Out West" and Ernest Tubb's "Thanks a Lot." His uncanny ease with the material began to take a hold of the crowd and once he dropped right into a yodel worthy of resonating through the loneliest canyons of the west, people went completely nuts. Within minutes, it seemed that the crowd had grown tenfold, as people watched Toshio Hirano work his cowboy magic.

After the rush of Horino's performance, Deborah Pardes stepped to the stage with a palpable enthusiasm and a trimmed down band to follow her lead. Percussionist Pam Delgado also helped out on the higher harmonies and the two led the crowd through some pleasant folk-driven pop songs. The more emotional weighted tracks were notable thanks to Parde's lyricism, easily making phrases like "Sysyphus in high-heels" seem like more than just undergraduate poetry.

As Michael Fracasso set up on stage, the crowd was slowly coming to the realization that they were likely to go an entire day without sunshine. Not that the natives were getting restless, but it was evident that people needed some stirring up. Fracasso's sweet, slightly nasal tunes - topical, yet sweetly romantic at first resembled some of Roger McGuinn's more barebones efforts. The energy stepped up as Patti Griffin came up onstage for a reworking of "Dirty Old Town" that brought the audience (which now included newcomer gypsy folkie Devendra Banhart) into new realms. From there on out, Fracasso had the crowd completely engaged. When he leant his skills to the Gershwin standard, "Summertime," he turned the track into something more desolate, adding cello to emphasize that track's inherent drama and wistfulness.

Many latecomers to the festival made their way up JFK Drive through the gothic fog to be greeted by a somber set from sandy-haired Tim Bluhm, who was scheduled to perform with usual sidekick and former Mother Hip Greg Loiacono. Due to a scheduling mix up Bluhm took the stage without Loiacono's expressive leads and banjo playing, and starting with an apology for his partners' absence, he hunched over his classical guitar and took to a yet-unreleased tune with the working title of "Isn't it Hard."

Combined with the atmosphere, Bluhm's somber presence made for an appropriately plaintive and quiet start to the afternoon. As the stalwart Mother Hips fans sat in rapt silence, there slowly amassed a group of passer-bys who seemed taken by the intimate stage.

The setting was perfect to check out Bluhm's lyrical tooling, with "I Will Fear No Evil" and "If Love Has No Pride" leading up to the shanty "Eucalyptus Wood," which found him incanting the lyric "Any boy or girl knows, you build your ship with eucalyptus wood, you're gonna drown" under the sway of branches above. Though he played a handful of selections from his debut solo record, California Way, he sent the crowd away with Avila Beach's "Unless" and his own throaty, soulful closer "The Way the Story Goes."

Shawn Camp's set enlivened those who stayed with mostly up-tempo numbers that fit more comfortably into traditional bluegrass channels. The recent addition to John Prine's Oh Boy label and young Nashville songwriting sensation jumped out of the gate, leading his five-piece band (two-guitar, mandolin, upright bass, banjo) through a ramped-up version of "Travelin' Teardop Blues" which leads-off his latest record, Live at the Station Inn. In that tune Camp speaks of "drifting over California...like the clouds above" and the throughout the set his band followed briskly behind every lead with racing picking and sweet harmonies.

After a couple tunes Camp confessed that the audience had "caught him with a cold" that he just couldn't shake, but little evidence was in his rich treatment of "Sis' Draper," a humorous tune that from Camp announced from stage had been "written with a dear friend of mine," the inimitable Guy Clark.

For Charlie Koltak, an onlooker who came to the festival all the way from Detroit, Michigan, Camp's set was the first highlight of a festival he'd flown hundreds of miles to check out.

"I'd really only known his name because of that corn ball tune he wrote for Garth Brooks," Koltak said, referring to the #1 "Two Pina Coladas," that he co-wrote for the pop country icon. "But, I take anything John Prine signs to Oh Boy for gospel, and I love his own tunes and band so much better. If this weekend started this good, I can hardly imagine how it can get better," Koltak said.

While Koltak headed off to check out Gillian Welch, HUD featuring Javier Matos took the stage as the fog started to clear. This, the last set of Saturday on the small Porch Stage, had many other sets vying for attentive ears, but it didn't seem to phase Matos, who blasted through a series Delta-touched blues numbers with aplomb. Those who stuck around for the set caught Matos' impressive guitar work and tasteful blues riffing, which captivated the onlookers and departing festival goers alike.

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