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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2006 (Friday)

By Sarah Bardeen

Fall in San Francisco: everyone's recovering from summer's end and preparing for the soggy, gray months ahead. But in the interim -- between the brief September heat and the November floods, we get October. It's bluegrass time again.

"I think this is the best bluegrass festival ever," a friend of mine said to me before I headed up to Speedway Meadows this year for the Friday program. "I think this may be the best bluegrass festival in the world."

That's easy to say when you aren't hotfooting it up to Golden Gate Park first thing Friday morning to watch busloads of public school children squirm for an hour and a half in front of goosebumped-but-game country musicians. I was a little grumpy: I didn't even have time to make my customary flask of hot tea to defend against the cold wind.

photo: jon r. luini

But, as always, I was pleasantly surprised once I got there. This year the festival hit the right note with the kids program: each of the three acts played for just half an hour (perfectly suited to the kids' short attention spans) and thankfully the outrageous showmen P.M.W. were invited back to headline again.

The opening act was Samantha Robichaud, a prodigiously talented Canadian fiddler of Acadian descent. Her rollicking set of trad-rock certainly warmed the crowd up, though one gets the sense that Robichaud never plays one note when she can play four. But at just sixteen years of age, you can't fault her for that; she plays better than many adults. Robichaud's pace slowed only when she played "Always Be Remembered," a somber song she'd written for Daniel Pearl, the murdered journalist (and avid violinist) whose memorial foundation was sponsoring the event. (Pearl's family was in the crowd.) Robichaud returned to energetic form for her final number, "The Answering Machine"; she had the kids clapping and dancing, which was quite a feat on that cold and windy Friday morning.

The real surprise of the day, however, arrived with the second act. Fourteen year old Alex Hargreaves -- also a fiddler and winner of the 2005 Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin -- proved to be absolutely brilliant. He may have looked like a lanky, pubescent kid in baggy jeans and a shapeless shirt, but the music exuded class and taste. The simple trio included Joe Craven on mandolin and percussion and Sam Bevan on bass, and they alternated between jazz standards and roots music, infusing each with a hint of the other. Through each song, Hargreaves played with the subtlety and sensitivity of a much older player: his clean tone and the group's jazzy arrangements brought to mind a young Stephane Grappelli.

The young prodigy also refused to showboat, inviting solos from the other two players in every song and never overplaying. But he's obviously still finding his feet as a performer: Craven took over the showmanship duties, switching from playing mandolin to a wooden box with brushes, and ultimately resorting to playing his own face, to the crowd's vast delight. The idiosyncratic mix ended beautifully with a cover of a Wes Montgomery tune that featured Craven beatboxing.

photo: jay blakesberg

P.M.W. -- also known as Poor Man's Whiskey -- put on the most kid-friendly show of the day. Last year they'd seduced the kids with a bluegrass rendition of Outkast's "Hey Ya!," and I was primed to see what surprises they'd cooked up this year.

They didn't disappoint. They're fantastic performers, from their onstage appearance to their musical presence: they look like renegade hippie freaks -- or more accurately, surly backwoodsmen transplanted to San Francisco -- and though they clown around, they really know how to play. The group opened the show like a roots rock Ozomatli, strolling through the crowd playing their instruments before jumping onstage and finishing a rollicking version of "Got My Mojo Working."

Once they had the kids' attention, they threw on gray beards and segued into a skit about building a time machine. The first spin of the machine landed the group back in "old school" territory, which for these cats meant the early '90s: they rocked the best -- and only -- bluegrass version of Guns 'n' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" this reviewer has ever heard, Axl Rose imitation and all.

Later in the set, the venerable patron of the weekend, Warren Hellman, joined the group onstage as they ventured into the "Stone Age" (as they called it) for some old-time bluegrass. Hellman, dressed in a Fred Flinstone costume for the occasion, acquitted himself well on the banjo and took a shy bow at the end.

P.M.W. then teased the kids, suggesting they'd play the biggest hit of last summer (Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" for those of you unfamiliar with hip-hop) but instead they launched into Patsy Cline's hit by the same name. They didn't disappoint, however: after a few verses the band detoured into the hit song as promised, which inspired widespread (but happy) chaos in the crowd. As the song ended the business began, and the kids were then unceremoniously herded into their buses and sent back to school.

The scene in the meadow Friday afternoon reminded me of Hardly Strictly when it launched six years before. There was a good turnout, but the meadow wasn't packed (the crowd hadn't yet swollen to its Saturday size); it was an audience of hardcore music-lovers prepared to bear any weather blowing off the ocean to see their favorite acts. I could sense a kind of camaraderie amongst the crowd that gets lost when tens of thousands of people are jostling for room.

photo: jon r. luini

While most people came anticipating the Elvis Costello show, for my money Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock -- two thirds of the Flatlanders -- put on one of the most brilliant sets of the festival. Gilmore's voice, nearly as nasal as Willie Nelson's but gifted with more range and depth, repeatedly found the nuance in Butch Hancock's lyrics. As Gilmore himself put it when he introduced the song "Love Or Fear," "This is my song; it just happens that Butch Hancock wrote it."

It was also one of the most political sets. Gilmore told the crowd he'd distilled his customary rant this year to a single phrase: "You need to understand," he said archly, "that all Texans do not agree with all Texans." Just as he said it, a Blue Angel (part of that weekend's naval air show) flew low and slow overhead, temporarily drowning out the performers. It was a coincidence that was to occur several more times during the course of the afternoon -- most notably just as the duo ended the pointed song "Cast The Devils Out." "Those things aren't armed, are they?" Gilmore asked as a quartet of planes tore through the sky.

The set's highlight was unquestionably Butch Hancock's "Give Them Water," a Bob Dylan-esque a cappella song off of Hancock's new release "War And Peace." Gilmore introduced it as his favorite Butch Hancock song, "possibly ever." And Hancock sang it like an old-time lament, his voice ringing out over a meadow full of people who sat rapt and attentive. "Go find someone who's hungry / And give them food to eat. / Go find someone who's homeless / and bring them in off the street." Simple sentiments, but they resonated with the crowd.

The duo lightened the tone with "Treat Me Like A Saturday Night" and "Dallas," which Gilmore introduced as a "medley of my greatest hit." At Warren Hellman's behest, they played the excellent "Saginaw, Michigan" as an encore. "I never thought I'd follow up ["Dallas"] with this song, but Warren has great taste," Gilmore told the crowd before striking up the tune.

Before Elvis Costello came on, an announcer took the stage and shared an anecdote. Apparently a journalist had asked Hellman how he felt about the Blue Angels, and he'd replied: "The war machines are in the air, but peace is on the ground." Just as he repeated these words, another group of planes -- almost predictably, at this point -- screamed through the air overhead. And then Elvis Costello came out, guitar in hand, to the cheers of a rapturous audience.

San Francisco was the first U.S. city Costello ever performed in; fittingly, it will also be the last for a while. He and singer Diana Krall are expecting a baby in November, and he plans to quit touring for a year to be with them. Though he'd been in San Francisco twice earlier in the year, this set undoubtedly outdid both previous appearances in terms of both spontaneity and variety. Costello donned multiple hats through the course of the afternoon, starting out singing solo with his acoustic guitar. The crowd thrilled to the opening strains of his classic "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" (though they were surprisingly tentative about singing backup when he asked).

photo: jay blakesberg

True to the afternoon's form, Costello took his digs at the American war machine in general and President Bush in particular, riffing on the idea that Bush's obsession with torture was somehow connected to his history with cocaine whores. Even the Bush haters in the crowd seemed a little taken aback by this. Costello then described what kind of light show would have accompanied "God's Comic" -- in the middle of the song.

He may have lost the crowd a bit during this section, but the meadow is the great leveler: without his fancy theatrics, Costello had to rely on his talent to sway the crowd, and as the set progressed, he did just that. The entrance of his band, the Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, seemed to help: they hit an excellent groove covering Merle Haggard's "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" and segued into several other country and honky-tonk songs.

By the time he sang "Country Darkness" (off of 2004's "The Delivery Man"), you could feel the entire meadow hold its breath and lean in to listen. Costello's voice is suited to country songs: something about his almost offhand vibrato speaks so gently but convincingly of heartbreak. But the audience's hushed attention also spoke well of them: they didn't seem to need the hits; they were looking for something a bit deeper, and at that moment they got it.

From "Country Darkness" on, the set gelled perfectly. In a subtle homage to the meadow's hippie past, the group played a rendition of the Grateful Dead's "Loser" that seemed to invite ghosts out of the woods. The Blue Angels had retired for the night, and in the sudden stillness the scene almost looked like a Maxfield Parrish painting done in somber colors. The trees behind the stage looked backlit and spectral as the sun peered through a crack in the clouds, warming the contemplative, October-ish crowd. People lined the ridge above the meadow and sat tucked in between the trees on the hillside.

It felt only natural that Costello would suddenly conjure Emmylou Harris from the shadows and sing an incandescent duet with her -- Johnny Cash's classic "I Still Miss Someone." They followed that with a narcoleptic version of "Love Hurts" that had Costello at his aching best, while Harris's voice floated overhead like spun gold.

photo: jon r. luini

The charmed atmosphere endured: Costello brought Gillian Welch and David Rawlings onstage. Welch was glowing, her arms bare to the cool wind and her voice exquisitely old-timey. Together the four sang the Louvin Brothers' "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face," and something about the impromptu vibe brought to mind the "Festival Express" -- the five-day train trip across Canada that Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Band (among others) took in the summer of 1970. Hardly Strictly is turning into a kind of yearly jam session for the world's top roots musicians; it's undoubtedly as exciting for the musicians themselves as it is for the audience.

After a raucous group rendition of "Mystery Train" and a sadly appropriate "What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding?," the impromptu vocal quartet turned their considerable skills to Elvis Costello's "The Scarlet Tide." This song, which made it onto the 2003 "Cold Mountain" soundtrack, has as much grace as any early 20th century gospel standard: it carves a place for itself that's somewhere between sweet and chilling. Costello had penned an additional lyric: halfway through the song, the band quieted, and Costello sang a verse that ended "admit you lied / and bring the boys back home." It was the definitive statement of the day, and even their final encore, Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," added only the icing to the cake.

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