By Mark Hedin, Tim Simmers and Mike Alexis
As the sun rose Saturday on a typically warm, clear San Francisco
Indian Summer morning, already the bluegrass hard core were at work,
setting out tarps and lawn chairs to claim prime viewing space in
front of the stages in anticipation of the day's proceedings.
photo: jon r. luini
Long before the Nashville Bluegrass Band took command of the Banjo
Stage at 11, Lou Felthouse and Frank Holmes, of the San Francisco
traditional bluegrass band the Kentucky Twisters, had settled in,
well stocked with provisions for the day of leisure and pleasure
ahead. But they were by no means the first on the scene. Despite
arriving at 8 a.m., their festival central for their posse off to
the right of the Banjo Stage sound booth was 50 yards or so deep
into the crowd.
"Let's wake people up with a Bill Monroe tune," onetime Soggy Bottom
Boy guitarist Pat Enright suggested before the band tore into "The
Road to Columbus." Other set highlights included songs about rocking
chairs, boll weevils and tunes by both the Alabama Sheiks - "Travelin'
Railroad Man Blues" -- and the Mississippi Sheiks - "Sitting on top
of the World."
Not to be outdone by the free Opera in the Park program of a few
weeks before, the Opera Dukes, led by David Gockley, the new general
director of the San Francisco Opera, with members of the opera
itself, offered their take on hillbilly music, with banjo accompaniment
to get things under way at the Arrow Stage farther down the meadow.
But most attendees' first glimpse of the festival was the Porch
Stage, tucked into a corner right next to the entrance to Speedway
Meadow. A steady stream of bicyclists passed on the way to the
massive bike-parking area (where more than 600 bikes were estimated
to have arrived), while people on foot, armed with coolers and lawn
chairs, craned their necks as they made their way to one of the
bigger stages to see a few seconds of Jeffrey Luck Lucas and the
Sorrows, who got things under way at noon. The sun may have been
high in the sky by then, but Lucas' slow-burning
pedal-steel-and-organ-drenched country sound took listeners - at
least, those of age -- right back to late nights in smoky bars.
The crowd there was modest in numbers but primed for fun. An adorable
little girl in an Amoeba Records T-shirt ran back and forth, weaving
through the blankets and chairs while the adults sipped wine from
paper cups. Two guys played guitar and ukulele and sang off-key on
the shaded grass between sets, and there were dogs everywhere. Even
though huge cheers could be heard all the way from the Banjo stage,
the Porch Stage was a fine place to be.
But so was the Banjo Stage, of course, where Alison Brown offered
her jazzy take on the art form - her "Django Latino," "Late on
Arrival," and a funky "Corrina, Corrina" -- with an assist from her
toddler Hanna -- before yielding the stage to local banjo hero Bill
Evans' Banjo Extravaganza featuring Tony Trischka and Alan Munde.
Backed by fiddle, mandolin, upright bass and guitar, Evans, Trischka
and Munde, all in matching shirts, finger-picked lightning-fast
lines in perfect unison before calling Brown back to the stage for
their finale. "This is what happens," Evans said as they launched
into "Dixie Breakdown," "when banjo players get together and no one's
around." The lawn was a sea of colors with a few inches of grass
peeking through the patchwork of tarps and blankets, the sun high
in a cloudless sky.
Back at the Arrow Stage, meanwhile, the Dry Branch Fire Squad
provided counterpoint to the Opera Dukes with a heavily narrated
set long on cornpone, interspersing Gillian Welch's "By the Mark"
and the traditional "Clinch Mountain Backstep" with tales of Bill
Monroe's broken mandolin and wry and self-effacing observations,
mostly courtesy of mandolin player Ron Thomason. Knowing they'd got
to the crowd, the band kicked into some lonesome Appalachian tune
sounding like music from back in the holler, before anybody bothered
to improve on it. These guys play so earthy, it's like generations
of front-porch hillbilly gospel pouring down.
"A lot of parts of the country think you Californians are crazier
than a loon," Thomason said, in reference to the Iraq war. "But
you guys knew what was going on a long time ago."
Lefty political commentary is pretty common among the Hardly
Strictly bands, or maybe they just speak more freely when out West
because they know they're preaching to the choir.
At the Rooster Stage, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis swapped songs
as raptors circled lazily overhead and vendors offered a smorgasbord
of lunch choices to the crowd circulating from stage to stage.
"You can't beat this setting -- San Francisco is so beautiful,"
said hippie holdout Johnny Chicago, of Fort Bragg. "I live in a
rural scene, and it's nice to come down here and have a pleasant
photo: jay blakesberg
At the Star Stage off at the western end of the festival, Alison
Moorer was holding forth with an assist from her husband, a fellow
named Steve Earle. Moorer, an Alabama native, is a hard-strumming
storyteller who touches people with her passion.
"Support your local woman's shelter," she urged, then tore into a
song about a country girl tiptoeing around the house while her
husband slept off another drunk. The driving rhythm and a booming
sound formed the soundtrack for the character's making a break for
it and heading out West on her own.
Earle added some commentary on another big event going on in the
city, Fleet Week, and its attendant aerial stunt team, the "Blue
Angels." He suggested the crowd show its appreciation for the noisy
flyovers by giving the planes a collective middle-finger salute.
As little kids kicked soccer balls in the green meadow and youngsters
played hacky-sack in a circle, Earle sat in on his wife's next song,
Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." The crowd reacted
with some tears and warm applause.
"Anywhere you are, it's amazing music, and you see musicians in
bands who aren't normally together," said Theresa Burke of Healdsburg.
"How often do you get to see that?"
San Francisco's Stairwell Sisters followed Moorer, kicking up some
heartwarming, urban old-timey originals that had people clogging
in their bare feet on the grass. It was like a square dance in the
meadow, as raucous, claw-hammer banjo player Evie Ladin broke into
some flashy, tap-shoe clogging of her own. The all-girl, red-and-black
clad band played an old Tommy Jarrell fiddle song called "Sugar
Hill" and urged the crowd to give Jarrell a listen if they hadn't
yet heard him.
Back at the Porch Stage another local, Etienne DeRocher, was telling
the crowd, "I decided there weren't enough songs about disembodied
brains floating around" and promptly went about remedying the
photo: anthony pidgeon
In the main meadow, meanwhile, the Pine Leaf Boys, an outfit out
of Lafayette, La., recently signed to El Cerrito's venerable roots
music champion Arhoolie Records label, were tearing it up at the
Arrow Stage. Headstands and hula hoops were visible in that part
of the crowd that wasn't kicking up their heels and two-stepping
in an audience that by now stretched clear to the fully occupied
bleachers at the other side of the meadow.
Hailing from farms and villages in the Cajun country, the boys in
their early 20s took the crowd out to the swamp with some traditional
Cajun/zydeco music played rowdy, backwoods style with plenty of
"We eat a lot and make a mess," accordionist Wilson Savoy admitted
as they urged the crowd, if it really wanted to take them home,
instead buy their album "La Musique" up at the merchandise stand.
But the crowd was eating it all up right there, dancing on either
side of the stage while the band offered an instrument-by-instrument
breakdown of the Scottish melodies, Cajun backbeat, thumping bass,
Cedric Watson's steaming fiddle and Savoy's accordion that make
this music its own unique gumbo, and played what they claim was the
first Cajun song ever recorded, Joe Falcon's "Allons a Lafayette"
from the late '20s.
Guitarist Jon Bertrand and bassist Blake Miller struck rock-star
poses on the lip of the stage at the audience's far right, but this
stuff could have been played on a porch overlooking a black swamp
with the smell of jambalaya in the air. The band hollered in French
- especially on a French-language rendition of the Hank Thompson
standard "Wild Side of Life" -- and the crowd just hollered.
"Everybody's got a honky tonk angel," Savoy commented, lifting a
line from the song.
The crowds continued to grow as folks arrived down through the
surrounding hillsides on Golden Gate Park's dusty dirt paths
perfumed by the overhanging eucalyptus trees, the sounds from the
various stages overlapping at times, with snippets of banjo fiddling
and faint backwoods vocals blending as newcomers approached the
Back at the Star Stage, the Austin Lounge Lizards were doing their
humorous, satirical schtick. "Bluegrass is our life," one member
told the crowd. "Too bad it's not part of our act," another chimed
in in the aftermath of "Susie Rosen's Nose".
Keeping it all really real, another highlight of their set was a
Beach Boys-style "Hey Little Minivan," with its references to dual
airbags, Consumer Reports, lumbar support and trips to the pediatrician
and grocery store.
Making their way up a quiet path leading from the Star Stage back
to the main meadow, Arizonan Lara Gomora and other members of her
party of 40 who were spending the weekend at the Presidio, the
former military base just on the San Francisco side of the Golden
Gate Bridge, raved about their first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
festival. "This is like 10 Tellurides," she said, in reference to
the annual Colorado bluegrass event. "We're never missing this
festival again." They'd just taken in Todd Snider's set at the Star
Stage. "He'll make you laugh and cry at the same time," Gomora
enthused. He's "like a Bob Dylan in the making."
photo: anthony pidgeon
It was getting crowded at the Rooster Stage now, and getting toward
the front was a challenge everyone seemed willing to accept. It was
a hectic scene with people almost stepping over each other, but
within the tight crowd and muddy lawn, spirits were high. That's
because the Songwriter's Circle was about to begin. Once Earle, Guy
Clark, Billy Bragg, and Verlon Thompson took the stage for this HSB
tradition, the migration stopped.
Earle said it was the most people he's seen at this stage, and as
an HSB veteran by now, he would know. The songwriter's circle was
nothing but highlights. Bragg reworked the lyrics to Leadbelly's
"Bourgeois Blues," changing it to "Bush War Blues," which got the
crowd riled up. Thompson followed with a haunting, a capella version
of "A Whisper and a Scream." The Blue Angels made their presence
known at about this time, but the forceful surge of the occasional
jet was not enough to overwhelm the proceedings. Of course, a few
minutes later while Earle was singing "Fort Worth Blues," his tribute
to Townes Van Zandt, the jets rushed overhead and the entire crowd
raised its arms in their Earle-inspired salute.
On a day brimming with old-timey and traditional bluegrass music,
you'd think T Bone Burnett, producer of the "O Brother Where Art
Thou" soundtrack, would join the down-home party. But he weighed
in on the "hardly" side, with a surreal electric rock set at the
He drew plenty of fans though, mixing some dark mojo with a measure
of jangling electric rockabilly and stuff from even further out
there. It was just what the doctor ordered for Elvis Costello, who
sat in with Burnett, a musical cohort of his from way back.
Over on the Porch Stage, with impresario Warren Hellman in attendance,
sitting on the grass and watching in his straw hat, the wiry Heidi
Clare played powerful fiddle, and clogged as she teamed up with
songwriter and guitarist Ed Snodderly. Bearing down on the groove,
they smoked the song "Working in the New Mine," about working on a
keyboard. "I'm building muscle in my fingertip, and the rest to
me is losing grip."
Clare reaches way back to emulate some long-gone fiddlers when she
starts sawing that thing with a hard, athletic style. She really
puts the juice to these old-time tunes and Appalachian songs.
On the Banjo Stage meanwhile, it was time for one Earl Scruggs,
82 years young. With his son Gary Scruggs playing bass and handling
much of the vocal work, and International Bluegrass Music Association
champs Brian Sutton on guitar and Rob Ickes on Dobro, the throngs
got an earful or three from the one of the guys who put bluegrass
on the map.
"Salty Dog," "Earl's Breakdown," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "Soldier's
Joy," "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music," comprised
some of those earfuls. The Blue Angels, of course, flew overhead.
"Anybody get their license?" Gary Scruggs cracked. "It's nice to
know this city is so protected."
"Foggy Mountain Ride" was dedicated to Dobro star Josh Graves, who
had passed away just days before. Sutton took the vocals for a
stunning "John Hardy." Some confusion led to the band declaring
they were calling "an audible" as they decided to play "Sitting on
Top of the World" after "Sally Goodin." "Step it Up and Go" followed,
with "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from the "Beverly Hillbillies"
TV show, of course, and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the "Bonnie
and Clyde" soundtrack concluding the set before the Scruggses left
the stage. "Gotta go see Doyle Lawson!" Gary Scruggs explained.
Back at the Porch Stage, the late afternoon sun hung slightly above
the trees and shined directly on Jon Langford, Sally Timms, and
Rico Bell of the beloved British country-punk band the Mekons. With
30 years of making music together behind them, the effortless rapport
between these three was more than palpable. Easing through a set
full of soulful, Celtic-inspired folk, Langford and Timms traded
off lead vocals while Bell, sunglasses on, switched between guitar
and accordion. Right after some Blue Angels passed by, a jogger ran
through the crowd and right past the front of the stage mid-song,
causing Langford to say, "Joggers and airplanes. This is the most
unusual gig I've ever played."
photo: jon r. luini
"We're probably the smallest, quietest band you're going to see on
this stage," Gillian Welch warned the crowd after opening with "I
Want to Sing That Rock and Roll." "We're on the big stage today and
we're scared to death!"
"They made us do it," her sidekick, guitarist David Rawlings snidely
"Elvis Presley Blues" and "Daniel Had the Key to the Kingdom"
followed, and a melancholy, as-yet unrecorded song "Throw Me a Rope"
that the pair have performed for several HSBs running now preceded
the previously unheard "From the Bottom of the Sea" "for Peter,"
Welch leans and sways like a willow tree while Rawlings rings, or
wrings, beautiful notes from his little prewar Epiphone guitar that
seem to fall out of the instrument like colorful, sweet smelling
rose petals. He plays with such passion that people seem an inch
away from giving him a standing O, but can't move because they're
stunned by the brilliant weave of classical and Spanish notes with
gritty traditional ones that fit like a glove with Welsh's mesmerizing
Besides her big Gibson guitar, Welch will also strap on a banjo
from time to time, and as she reached for a harmonica as well,
Rawlings explained that this would provide "two out-of-tune
instruments," which "somehow eases the pain."
"That's pretty old-timey right there," Welch retorted. She played
"One Little Song" solo, followed by "Time's the Revelator" and "By
"We've never done this before, but this seems like the place to do
it," Welch said then. "What time is it? Five o'clock? Something
"A pistol shot, at five o'clock ..." Rawlings sang as they launched
into the Grateful Dead's "China Doll."
Silver-haired Emmylou Harris joined the duo at the close of their
memorable set with an emotional, a cappella version of "Didn't Leave
Nobody but the Baby."
After "I'll Fly Away," another song from the "O Brother" soundtrack,
Rawlings and Welch returned for the day's only Banjo Stage encore,
a song Welch said had often been requested, but one they'd only
just recently, finally, got down the words to: "Jackson," the
oft-covered lovers' banter made famous by Johnny and June Carter
Cash. The crowd roared again.
photo: jon r. luini
Bay Area acoustic-punk trio Kemo Sabe closed out the Porch Stage
with a raucous set, starting with a rapid-fire cover of Rocket From
the Crypt's anthem "Hippy Dippy Do." The surly bass player's
ridiculous, feather-adorned top hat and beat-up, sticker-strewn
upright bass were fitting for a band so fun and reckless. A group
of bike-messenger types (for lack of a better term) were hanging
out up front, drinking beer and enjoying the band as the last of
the afternoon sun slowly set behind them. It was a quintessential
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass moment.
Hard-core troubadour Steve Earle was the Banjo Stage headliner, and
with his Bluegrass Dukes he got rowdy pretty fast. He echoed Welch's
earlier expressions of surprise at the day's warmth, saying it was
the best weather ever for his set, as he delivered some nice
performances on songs from "The Mountain," his masterful album with
the Del McCoury band.
People kicked up their heels to uptempo numbers such as "The Graveyard
Shift" and the soulful "Yours Forever Blue," which he introduced
as a song he wrote that Ronnie McCoury then showed him how to play.
His "Harlan Man" moistened plenty of eyes.
Of course, Earle's plenty political, but as he put it, "not paranoid,
just scared shitless." He rolled through the Civil War song
"Dixieland," reprised Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman's draft-dodging
song "My Uncle," the Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You," Lowell
George's "Willin'," his own - "with apologies to Thomas Wolf and
Doc Watson" -- "Hometown Blues" about a visit to Schertz, Texas,
and his "John Walker's Blues" about the so-called "American Taliban,"
John Walker Lindh, who hails from Marin County, just across the
Golden Gate Bridge.
Earle closed with "Jerusalem," a prayer for peace he said he wrote
"'cause of one of my kids, but I wrote it about one of your kids."
And so concluded a rich day of hot picking and good feelings, with
even more still ahead the next day.