Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Porch Stage
Sunday, October 2
By Heidi De Vries

The sun was shining brightly over Golden Gate Park on Sunday as David Jacobs-Strain stood on the Porch Stage tuning his steel guitar. The small stage was perched at the top of a precipitous hill that threatened to send listeners tumbling backward if they sat the wrong way, but this was not deterring the group of enthusiastic Jacobs-Strain fans gathering on the slope. A woman near the front called up to the singer that she had seen him open in Vancouver, and he smiled at her. "Yeah, that was a great time!"

It was exactly this sort of casual intimacy that made the Porch Stage a downright inviting place to hang out on Sunday. The crush of the crowd at the other stages could quickly get overwhelming, but the folks who trekked out to Porch were a mellower bunch, there to listen to the tunes and support local artists. The stage was just large enough to hold a five-piece band, and it was simply decorated with a porch at the front and a row of wood-frame windows at the back that tended to swing wildly when the wind picked up. Porch Stage was also fortuitously situated at a spot where streams of people were walking into the festival along the main road, and the music was so good that many of them found themselves pausing to listen and then staying. With sets never lasting longer than half an hour, it was easy to get a diverse sampling of music over the course of the afternoon.

David Jacobs-Strain got things off to a rousing start just after noon with some heartfelt roots and blues, alternating between acoustic and steel guitars and singing with a deep, rich voice that contrasted with his visible youth. When he introduced his version of "Girl I Love" he jokingly made it clear he was covering Sleepy John Estes, not Led Zeppelin. The crowd responded to each of his songs with wild applause, and as he was playing the title track from his last album Ocean or a Teardrop a group of people ran up to the front of the stage to dance their way through to the end of his set.

Rykarda Parasol and her band were up next, performing plugged-in gothic Americana tinged with accordion and keyboard. Parasol's vocals were reminiscent of Paula Frazer - low and melancholy one moment, high and crooning the next - as she sang moody ballads of love gone wrong. The murkiness of the band's music was matched by the weather, as San Francisco fog rolled in to temporarily cover the sun.

The crowd had swollen noticeably by the time A.J. Roach took the stage with "This Banjo Kills Kittens" scrawled on his instrument of choice. Accompanied by Alisa Rose on fiddle and Adam Roszkiewicz on guitar, Roach played his specialty, authentic mountain music with a lot of soul, and his voice took on a plaintive twang as he sang of a crooked sheriff from Kentucky in "James White" and of lost love remembered in "Little Bit Brighter". Roach has played Hardly Strictly twice before, and declared that it was his favorite gig of the year. He thanked the audience for sticking around, wryly supposing "maybe none of you have a schedule." A man in the crowd disagreed, "No, we're here for you!"

After A.J. Roach's contemplative set, Jimbo Trout and the Fish People got everyone all riled up again with some foot-stomping country swing complete with awe-inspiring fiddle, upright bass, clarinet, and an impressive washboard contraption. Led by the irreverent Trout, the Fish People had no qualms about mixing their genres, throwing in a saxophone solo or showing their tender side with a gentle waltz. Trout urged everyone in the audience to take a sip of their beverage as the band launched into a lively rendition of Jimmie Rodgers's "Travellin' Blues", and the crowd happily complied.

Following the wild energy of the Fish People, Willow Willow took it down several notches with simple two-girl harmonies accompanied by acoustic guitar and the occasional fiddle. They opened with the folk melody "Blackwaterside", in which a woman laments a deceptive lover and her own cynicism about love. Singers Jessica Vohs and Miranda Zeiger have known each other since elementary school, and their voices blended together perfectly on folk-pop songs like "Lovely Hours" and "Breezes". Even their performance of a traditional anti-war song was more quietly powerful than it was strident. There was a large contingent of young hipsters in the audience who had appeared especially for Willow Willow, and it only took a few songs before everyone was gazing peacefully at the stage, blissful smiles drifting across their faces.

Last but definitely not least, Stiff Dead Cat closed down the Porch Stage in the late afternoon with a potent brew of bluegrass, folk, and jazz. After declaring to the crowd, "You guys sure know how to party down here in San Francisco," the band got everyone on their feet with a cover of Del McCoury's "Good Man Like Me". The instruments were traditional - mandolin, upright bass - but the music embraced many different styles, exactly the sort of inclusiveness that makes the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival itself so dynamic. By the end of their set many people had deserted the area to catch Dolly Parton at another stage, but those that remained at Porch Stage gave the band an energetic round of applause.

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