Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 5 Reviews
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
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
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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