Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews

Star Stage
Saturday, October 1
By Mike Alexis

The fog was thick and the air wasn't warm when Wake the Dead took the stage to play "a little folk music from the local neighborhood." That neighborhood, of course, is Haight-Ashbury and the "folk" music was originally done by the Grateful Dead. Wake the Dead interpreted the band's songs, spinning them through a reverent, Celtic-infused filter. With a voice so much like Bob Weir, only their mothers could tell the difference, Singer Dan Carnahan led the six-piece band--which included mandolin and a surprisingly punchy standup bass--through inspired renditions of classic Dead songs such as "Bertha" and "Ripple," while a small crowd dance in front and off to the side. It was a festive start to what would surely be a long day of music. A woman in a purple witch's hat twirled around with a man that would win any Frank Zappa look-alike contest, while a few others in bright tye-dyed shirts milled about. Not quite the '60s reincarnated, but just enough for this crowd to get loose so early in the day.

The extremely amicable and good-natured Greencards were next and they set a very pleasant mood. Trading between songs from their recently released record on Dualtone and a few classic covers such as Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan's "Come to You When I Die" and Patty Griffin's "What You Are," they went from gentle ballads to rapid-fire bluegrass picking. Sadly, though, the sun was still nowhere to be seen.

Next up: the Dry Branch Fire Squad. Vocalist and mandolin player Ron Thomason one of the funniest, most incisive personalities in all of bluegrass, and he proved this point with between-song anecdotes that had the crowd hooked. "Verbal manure," he called these rants from the stage, but we knew better. He schooled the crowd about John Henry: "[He] never laid train tracks; he laid pipe"; he called Tom Delay a "Neanderthal" and he chided us for being city slickers. We loved every minute of it.

After a few songs, including a sublime rendition of Gillian Welch's old-time-sounding ballad "By the Mark," Thomason announced that a special guest was supposed to show, and rumor spread that we were waiting for festival founder Warren Hellman. A few songs later, Hellman walked through the crowd, shook a few hands and sat down in a lawn chair, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. It took some encouragement, but with the crowd's help, the band got him on stage and handed him a banjo. Deciding on "Wildwood Flower," Hellman and the Fire Squad did a fine version while many clapped along. Afterwards Thomason proclaimed, "You are in fact his guest," which prompted a rousing standing ovation.

Kicking the late-afternoon into high-gear, Buddy Miller brought his rocking country-soul-blues to the stage along with his hair-raising and dynamic backing-band. "It's against my religion to play while Doc Watson is playing, but we'll muddle through," Miller said, but there was no chance of him muddling through anything. Highlights happened fast, especially when Emmylou Harris walked on stage in a long black skirt with shiny silver sparkles. Harris and Miller have collaborated plenty in the past, but it was still a big, pleasant surprise. Starting with Miller's "Wide River to Cross," Harris stuck around to lend her pipes to the slow-simmer ballad "Don't Tell Me." The rest of the set was full of energized numbers, with Miller's soulful backup-singers lifting up "Shelter Me" and the organ-drenched "That's How Strong My Love Is."

Taking Miller's lead and going full-throttle, the Knitters were there to rock. Before the band took the stage, a substantially large crowd of mainly urban-hipster-cowboys-and-girls (think tattoos and cowboy hats) began to congregate at the front of the stage. Many were leaning against the barriers, which gave the Star Stage more of a rock concert than a bluegrass festival feel. The Knitters are a punk/rockabilly super-group, helmed by of John Doe and Exene from X, with Dave Alvin from the Blasters on guitar, so it was pretty normal that much of the crowd was on its feet and right up front before the set started.

The raucous, fast-tempo opener "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living" found John Doe and Exene trading spirited lead vocals, while stone-faced Alvin, decked-out in a sharp black suit and bright red neckerchief, laid down an impossibly fast, loud, and trebly lead. During "Burning House of Love" (originally an X song) the enthusiasm on John Doe's face was contagious. The Knitters kept up the pace until the end, which happened to be a drawn-out, countrified version of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." By this time the crowd in front had grown substantially, engulfing the colorful blankets.

The Star Stage saved the biggest for last with Los Super Seven. Featuring many of the guest musicians that appeared on the band's 2005 release You Heard it on the X, the set was a seamless round-robin of vocalists and musicians, totaling 17 in all. With drummer John Convertino from Calexico as the backbone, Joe Ely, Raul Malo, Rick Trevino, and Rueben Ramos traded lead vocal duties, while the West Side Horns made their presence known from the back. Los Super Seven ended the set by dedicating a "samba" to the late Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown--the legendary blues guitarist who passed away shortly after contributing to the band's last record. The song turned out to be the title track--a straight up bluesy rocker that Brown helped create.

All day long, the sun stayed hidden and the wind never ceased, but it was a beautiful day of music nonetheless. The beach ball being passed around proved that the crowed wasn't phased and that weather is a state of mind.

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