Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Rooster Stage
Saturday, October 1
By Nick Dedina

Typical San Francisco.

On Friday, when most people are stuck indoors, it's sunny with bright blue skies. At the Rooster stage on Saturday morning, hundreds, and then thousands, are stretching out and claiming spots under a blanket of dense, wet fog.

Thousands? At the Rooster stage? At 10AM on a miserable morning? What's going on here?

Something was different this year. Usually, the Festival slowly fills up during the morning hours. Not this year. Before Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez even walked out, the area in front of the Rooster Stage was already at full capacity and prospectors were already starting to stake claims and fill up the hill outside of the "official" concert area.

When Carrie Rodriguez came out in a fetching pink, gold-trimmed camisole, she was greeted with warm, enthusiastic applause: people were more than ready for the show to start. The white-haired, casually dressed Chip Taylor got the same response. The crowds enthusiasm turned out to be merited - Chip and Carrie put on a hell of a show, with Taylor making up for his relative lack of name recognition with a laidback air and "this song of mine sold 6 million for so-and-so" stage banter. Taylor has penned a vast catalogue of hits covered by other artists. The thing is, Taylor versions usually beat the ones we're all familiar with: his take of the once controversial "Angel In the Morning" (oh, how times change!) was honest and heartfelt compared to Juice Newton's big hit version, while "Wild Thing" (the first tune he ever recorded) was twice as rocking - and fun -- as The Troggs' classic pre-punk cover. Chip & Carrie (with a special nod to their lead guitarist) even got the morning crowd to sing along with them (!!! - you try that one, Mr. Opening Act!) before going on to earn the first field-wide standing ovation I've ever witnessed an opening act receive at any music festival.

Patty Griffin came out next, looking casually confident and sophisticated in a long pink coat.

Wait a minute...these are the festival openers this year??? No wonder the crowds came so early on Saturday.

Patty sounded like the "Angel of the Morning' in Chip's song, and her majestic voice cut through the fog and the layers of irony San Francisco crowds tend to armor their emotions with. Miss Griffin's pipes inhabit the musical world of the "sorrow key" and cut right through the crowd, and help make her songs of regret, bitterness, and pain somewhere uplifting and comforting instead of just uncomfortable. The atmospheric lead guitar work (think Bill Frisell when he's doing his spacey-folk thing or the sound of U2's "Unforgettable Fire") meshed perfectly with her voice, and lent a couple of the upbeat semi-honkytonks numbers a swampabilly feel. Patty's reading of "Don't Come Easy," from her 2004 platter Impossible Dream" earns her the second standing ovation of the day, meaning the festival is still batting a perfect .1000.

During Patty's show, the area around Rooster keeps filling to beyond capacity, with masses of festivalgoers trying to get places that streams of people are being repelled from. It becomes too crowded, with some fans loosing their cool at being stepped on repeatedly.

Things never get out-of-hand and when Joan Baez walks out on stage, the standing throngs immediately sit down wherever they are and greet her with a huge ovation.

Wait a minute...Joan Freaking Baez is 3rd on the bill??? What exactly is going on here?

Joan Baez, classy as ever, acknowledges the audience and kicks into "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," The Band's searing valentine to the defeated. Baez makes a crack about how all folk tunes are about death and then makes her point by singing grieving, ancient folk tunes, Johnny Cash's "The Long Black Veil," Woody Guthrie's "The Deportees," and then "Joe," announcing that it was Cindy Sheehan's favorite song.

Baez put down her guitar and her small band left the stage as she sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" a cappella. An audience member shouts out: "You're my hero, Joan!" to which Baez responds, "It's too early to be anybody's hero." Someone else in the crowd counters with "It's a 24/7 job!" which cracks Baez up, before doing a moving version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." She ends with Steve Earl's healing "Jeruselem,' which earns a mother of a crowd roar.

Three acts, three standing ovations. I noticed a young woman next to me who had been wiping away tears during both Griffin and Baez's sets. She told me that she never cared for Joan Baez much on record but that she delivered a real emotional experience in concert. That woman had it at least half right.

Then, the downside of having such big acts play so early in the day becomes apparent when there is a mass exodus after Saint Joan leaves the Rooster stage.

This was kind of unfair to Kelly Joe Phelps, who came on next and put on a strong solo set. Phelps doesn't have the star power of a Patty Griffin or a Joan Baez, but this fact - and thousands of people walking out on him thankfully didn't seem to affect his low-key, but intensely focused performance. His strong vocals and superior guitar playing skills (he plays bass and lead lines with his thumb while his fingers deal with complex rhythm parts) shined on such heartland heartbreakers as "Tied To a Jar," "Jericho," "Gold Tooth," and "Katmandu Man."

Halfway through Phelps' set, people started returning to the Rooster stage so that by the time Jimmie Dale Gilmore came out, things were definitely bumping again. Looking sharp in black, Gilmore launched into "Tonight I think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," one of the mellowest number in his set, before knocking into some upbeat, old-time country tunes (many from his 2005 release, which celebrates his father's favorite songs) and some serious honky-tonk numbers. JDG's one of those rare cats who is so comfortable, open, and natural on stage that he makes it look too easy, which is a world away from it actually being easy.

Gilmore turns a huge festival into his front porch, introduces his mother (who was attending her first ever Jimmie Dale Gilmore performance!), brings his son out so that he can sing a number, does one of Warren's requests, and talks about the obvious effect that his father's love of music had on his own life. He said he was surprised to learn that his dad's all-time favorite song was "Peace In the Valley," but when he performed it, you could understand why. Its universal theme was illustrated wonderfully by the festival's setting, making you wonder why life couldn't always be like this.

Gilmore's set has the now back-to-overflow crowd smiling and relaxed when the M.C. walks out and says, "You might as well get on your feet now - you're gonna be there anyway!" With that, Robert Earl Keen's band takes the stage and launches into "Feeling Good" and receives a roar of approval from the crowd. This was a super high energy, audience pleasing show, making it clear why Joan Baez didn't headline the evening: Keen & Co. have everyone dancing to a bracing mix of country, blues, and rock'n'rol. Though they were the hardest rocking band of the day by a country mile, a few of their songs were also the only real bluegrass numbers of the day. A surprisingly large percentage of the crowd were familiar with Keen's tunes and sing along with them or shout out the titles before his vocals come in.

Keen's good-humored, likable bad-boy image compliments his trough full of tunes about hard-living lowlifes and how good times can lead to bad. The supremely up vibe takes on a (purposefully) darker cast when Karen Young of Australia's Green Cards comes out to share the vocals on a doom-laded rocker. Then, two of Young's bandmates come out and add fiddle and mandolin to Keen's ludicrously catchy "Farm Fresh Onions" and re-rev the crowd up to the breaking point. Though it seems like the energy level can't get any higher, the final song in Keen's set, "The Party Never Ends," breaks things wide open, with people hootin', hollerin', and doing wild, spastic arm thrusts and body movements that only Saint Vitus himself would dare to call dancing.

The positive vibe stayed with the crowd, with people shuffling away from the festival with dazed smiles on their faces. San Francisco fog be damned, It was the look of people brimming over with the feeling that hours of great music gives you.

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