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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2006 (Saturday)

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 urban experience."

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 situation.

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 bayou flavor.

"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 meadow.

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 Star Stage.

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 chimed in.

"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 said.

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 vocals.

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 the Mark."

"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 like that."

"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.

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