Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews
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
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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