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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2006 (Sunday)

By Chris Streng and Jon Pruett

The spirits of Ma and A.P. Carter themselves must have pulled some heavenly strings the weekend of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. There was a last minute reprieve granted somewhere, and our impending weekend of dour conditions turned into a bright blue haven - it couldn't have been a nicer day. As the last day rolled in, accompanying it were the occasional bursts of fog, gradually turning to mist as the sun sank down. But otherwise, the day began with the kind of sunny Indian summer morning that is a foggy old San Fran. An event this huge, both physically and artistically, can be daunting for the casual listener but the crowd came prepared with blankets, folding chairs, hats, sweaters and rolling coolers. The game plan seems to be this: bring a chair, find a stage and stay there. The early morning blend of sound-check noises, radios, intermission music, and ring tones was reminiscent of a very large, very twangy orchestra tuning up.

photo: jay blakesberg

Banjo Stage opener Dale Ann Bradley delivered the kind of spirited, joyous performance that typified the vibe of the day. Practically every artist made a special point of thanking Warren Hellman and the volunteer staff and few could contain their gratitude about being asked to play at all. On the Arrow Stage, folk pioneer Ramblin' Jack Elliot struggled to be heard over the enthusiastic din of Dale Ann Bradley but his sparse rendition of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. The Wronglers laid out the welcome mat at the Porch Stage, featuring an eclectic cast of players including Warren Hellman (on banjo), his wife Chris, Ron Thomason (Dry Branch Fire Squad), Ana Egge, and others. Saturday Night Live alumni G.E. Smith followed with some of the most enthusiastic strumming of the day and a taut a capella version of the coal mining classic "Dark As a Dungeon." Eclecticism was another order of the day on the heavily shaded Rooster Stage where 4 Year Bender's rootsy mix had the modern hippies swaying and Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, and Fats Kaplin jammed with a raga-tinged intensity. The morning highlight of the Rooster Stage was a standing-room only performance from festival favorite Iris Dement. The Star Stage was large enough and far-removed enough to almost qualify as a separate festival. One wonders if some festival goers even knew it was there. Those who could locate the stage saw Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez let their considerable songwriting talents do the talking. The fleet fingers of Keystone Station greeted the steady stream of revelers at the Porch Stage and bluegrass pioneer Hazel Dickens received a roaring ovation on the Banjo Stage before even singing a single note. Dickens is the living embodiment of the bluegrass tradition and she did not let the teeming crowd down. The Arrow Stage had the most relaxed seating area of the festival with a large, grassy section full of hula-hooping children, Frisbee circles and dogs gleefully off their leashes. By early afternoon, the Flying Other Brothers were there invoking the spirit of the Grateful Dead with their ethereal, folk-tinged jams, replete with tasty electric licks courtesy of Porch Stage veteran, G.E. Smith.

As the afternoon heated up, it wasn't uncommon to see parents spraying their children with a soaker hose and more than one cooler full of beer was being opened. Best dressed honors went to a shirtless, barefoot jogger waving a huge Grateful Dead flag and to an otherwise normal-looking man with a huge snake wrapped around his neck. Cowboy hats and boots were practically mandatory for the female fans while the males ran the spectrum from tie-dyes and pony tails to curious joggers in running shorts. The imposed ban on tobacco use did little to stem the use of other smoke-able substances and business appeared to be brisk for the Alice B. Toklas brownie vendors.

This year saw a little bit of relocation for the Star stage, leading to a bit of a trek through the backwoods of Golden Gate park. A handful of confused folks and people who literally did go off the beaten path are making it through the brush looking to catch the duo known as Freakwater do a set in the early afternoon. Freakwater have an impressive run of albums on the indie label Thrill Jockey, where they stand out pretty strongly against a roster of experimental and studied indie rockers. They fit pretty well amidst the smorgasbord of HSBF, where families, loners, couples, punks, cowboys, hippies, vagabonds, weekend warriors and a fair amount of elementary school teachers congregate with a fairly blind eye turned towards the specific acts of the day - people were there to enjoy the music, knock back an organic burrito, and wash it down with some sort of liquid - beer by the case-full, seemed to be the preferred beverage. But Freakwater, with their tight harmonies and familiar country phrasing, couldn't have been better suited for this crowd.

photo: jay blakesberg

Seeing that the Star stage was the furthest out west, it made sense that one of the louder acts on the bill, the unabashedly rocking Drive-By Truckers, would find their home tucked back at the geographical tail end of the event. The group play a raucous mixture of Stones-ish riff rock with a fair amount of Southern-fried drawl to make everyone feel like getting loose. Throw in the roar of the Blue Angels overhead and the sight of what looks like someone's grandmother running in place to this neo-classic rock, and there's no doubting that San Francisco is in fine form today. While we can't be sure, it seems that there is some sort of chemical reaction that occurs whenever anyone hears a lick that sounds like it could have come off of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gimme Back My Bullets, or the Allman Brothers' Eat A Peach that just makes people want to toss of their shirts, pump their fists in the air, and just shout "yeah" repeatedly. Not even the generally mellow thrillseekers at HSBF were immune to the group's charms. The young boy to the right, who couldn't have been more than three, seemed to alternate watching the show with fetching sticks out of the bushes, stopped and yelled, "I love rock 'n' roll!" He had a point. Hardly strictly bluegrass, indeed.

photo: jay blakesberg

But as the day was going by quickly and the shows were happening just as fast, it was time to head off and explore a new avenue. The Rooster stage is always a hot spot at Hardly Strictly. Something about the way that the stage is dead set within a valley surrounded by felled trees, sloping green hills, and twisting paths makes the sound reverberate just a tiny bit more. It also gives a hint of exclusivity that the other stages lack. That's generally why you'll find everyone practically dangling off of every spare branch and perched on top of every rock or doubled up on anything remotely grasslike. Add in the fact that it's Elvis Costello who's holding court down in thick of it with buddy T-Bone Burnett in the guise of the Coward Brothers and you can imagine just how strong the enthusiasm is by this point. He definitely knows he's playing to a west coast audience as his set is wrapped up with some suitably stripped-down covers of Scott McKenzie's summer-of-love classic, "Are You Going to San Francisco?" and the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star." You can't say that the earth moved, but a few hundred trees were rattled to be sure. As the set ends, it's clear that the crowds aren't lessening any despite Costello's absence. Either this crowd is entirely made up of rock critics, or just about everyone knows what a brilliant guitarist Richard Thompson is. True to form, Thompson shuffles out in trademark baseball cap and lights into a set that starts out with just his urgent voice and some quick guitar accompaniment. As he gets into more involved in the set, he lights into "Walking On a Wire" and over the course of the next few tracks, he slowly starts unveiling this spiralling guitar leads that are far from showy, but are entrancing in their complexity and dexterity - it's like he's playing guitar with four hands. Wading through clearing surrounded by thick trees, his otherworldly guitar provides an almost haunting soundtrack - you almost feel like your caught in a deleted scene from the Grizzly Bear documentary (which Thompson provided the music for).

photo: jay blakesberg

By this time, the countdown is on and the last hurrah must be chosen wisely. Having missed the Arrow stage's Flying Other Brothers, acoustic Hot Tuna, and Richie Furay (whose set is currently winding down), it's either catch the Bay Area acoustic powerhouse the Waybacks do a set with Bob Weir or catch up with some country royalty in the form of Miss Emmylou Harris. Feeling indecisive, we opt for double duty and decide to catch some of the Waybacks fiery flatpicking before it becomes apparent that it's just too hard to evade Emmylou's charms - especially when she's backed with a parade of bluegrass veterans pulled from the Seldom Scene and the Tony Rice Unit. For the end, she pulls out Hazel Dickens and its nearly impossible to choke down the feeling that something special just happened. It's hard not to flinch a little when it's overheard that Gillan Welch and David Rawlings hopped up and joined the Waybacks for a finale, but as the mist settles down with the sun and Golden Gate Park truly does look a bit golden, and the crowd slowly disperses back into their various rivers of life - it becomes apparent that another successful has come and gone. Another one for the history books.

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