Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Rooster Stage
Sunday, October 2
By Mike Alexis and Jonathan Pruett

Easing into the day at the Rooster Stage, Eliza Gilkyson was introduced to the already large crowd, accompanied by her son Cisco Ryder on percussion and Mike Hardwick on guitar. The long, narrow field-protected by extremely tall trees on each side-was completely shaded, while the early afternoon sun shined brightly on the stage.

Gilkyson's mellow, confessional acoustic songs contain a youthful innocence, so it was somewhat surprising when she told us she has been making music since 1959. With the help of Hardwick's haunting, vibrato-laden leads and Ryder's understated, stripped-down rhythms, she created a serene setting for the early revelers. Gilkyson changed gears for her final song, "Man of God"-an incisive and energized song with George W. Bush firmly in its cross-hairs, which drew a standing ovation from the decidedly left-leaning crowd.

Todd Snider immediately followed, taking the stage wearing a sharp red jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. Right before his set, a group of guys were talking about which songs they hoped he would play. When his first song "I Can't Complain" wasn't one of them, they immediately took matters into their own hands and started eagerly shouting requests.

Snider's songwriting, as well as his on stage banter, can be both pointed and funny. Joined a few songs into the set by members of the South Austin Jug Band on fiddle and upright bass, they launched into "Hippies Like Me" an upbeat, satirical song that featured a sprightly fiddle solo, which incited long, drawn-out cheers. When they finished, the crowd wanted more, and their overwhelming standing ovation brought Snider and crew back for the rousing stomper "Sideshow Blues."

At this point the crowd was definitely loose. Only the dog wearing the cowboy hat seemed in low spirits, but really, who could blame him? Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, and Fats Kaplan came on next. With a more grave and earnest approach, the trio was a slight counterpoint to Snider's rascally persona. A steady rotation of instruments found Fats on the fiddle and mandolin, Kieran on the mandolin and banjo, and Welch on the guitar. And on the Appalachian folk-dirge "Mr. Bones," Welch ingeniously used his guitar case for percussion. Minor-key ballads such as "Flycatcher Jack" and "Shadows on the Ground" set a heavy mood, but the trio were also feeling a bit feisty. Scattered references to Tom Delay's recent indictment were heard on different stages throughout the festival, and Welch got a round of cheers when he said, "One of these days I want to send this song to Tom Delay, when he's in jail with his girlfriend Dick Cheney."

An unexpected musical-turn came next, when Kaplan evoked the spirit of his old Manhattan neighborhood with a story from his youth and a haunting classical solo piece on violin. It was an inviting departure that lulled the crowd for a little, just as the wind started to pick up and the sun faded behind the clouds.

One of the great things about the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Fest is the extraordinary line-ups that seem to draw on stars of the genre, as well as lesser-known legends. Guy Clark is easily one of the latter (and perfectly fitting in with the idea of hardly, strictly bluegrass). He's an unknown to most, but a hero to anyone who considers themselves a fan of gritty, honest songwriting. Most certainly he received a hero's welcome when he stepped out on the Rooster Stage, tucked back in a further corner of the expansive music festival. As he dove into such tracks as "L.A. Freeway" and "Texas Cookin'" you'd think Clark was a household name (which he probably was in this crowd.)

Clark was back on stage for the songwriter's circle, which also saw Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Dave Alvin and Verlon Thompson perform to a growing crowd that had to find more creative approaches to seating. Audience members sat in the crook of old pine trees and out on the branches. Meanwhile the pine needle-covered hillsides were filled with all configurations of day-time partiers. The main thoroughfare was filled with wall-to-wall Americana fans woo-hoo-ing their brains out.

The circle of players onstage delivered the sort of hard-hitting, incisive songwriting that is a rarity these days. Once the devoted, attentive audience caught wind of the line, "bring home those soldiers to stop this old war" there was no overlooking the emotion that rose up from the crowd.

Roseanne Cash was able to keep the crowds in tact as she led onlookers through a preview of her new album, the smoky sounding Black Cadillac. The title track from the album as well as other new tunes like "House on the Lake" provided just the right amount of calm for afternoon. Undoubtedly though, she was at her best when the band dipped into some pure honky-tonk numbers.

By the time Jim Lauderdale and his tough-as-nails bluegrass band got up on stage, if felt like most of the festival (if not the general population of California) had migrated out west to watch Dolly Parton. This left Lauderdale with a devote audience of fans, who eagerly tuned in to is irreproachable style and wit. The lonely ache in his strong voice made "The Apples Are Just Turning Ripe" sound like a traditional tune from the mountains rather than a song off of 2002's Ralph Stanley-assisted, Lost in the Lonesome Pines.

In fact, several of the tracks that Lauderdale ran through were taken from his collaborations with Stanley. A fact that Lauderdale, "an admitted name-dropper", as he put it, was willing to share with all. Other newer tracks like "Headed for the Hills", with its harmony vocals, acoustic rhythms and rich imagery filled the air with some of the most uniquely elegant and warmly received music of the day.

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