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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2007 (Friday)

By Sarah Bardeen

Hardly Strictly festival-goers often find themselves in a rocky boat on Saturday and Sunday. Schlepping from stage to stage, you invariably leave one act early and arrive at the next too late. Fortunately, a select few know (and I wish we could keep it that way!) that the Friday program is where it's at. The schoolkids get bused in for their morning program, adults play hooky in the afternoon, and a day of pretty great music -- minus the brawling herds -- is had by all.

At least that's how it worked out this year. Friday dawned cool and clear, the kind of perfect fall day you expect from September but rarely get in October. The kids streamed into their seats starting around 10 a.m., protected by a beefed-up cadre of security personnel and much of the top brass of the SF Unified School District.

Friday crowd @ Star stage
photo: jon r. luini

The show opened with the Abrams Brothers, a Canada family band helmed by guitar-playing dad Brian Abrams and guided by the remarkable talents of Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin Award-winners John and James Abrams, 17 and 15 years-old, respectively. The set was lovely -- songs like "City of New Orleans" got wonderful, old-timey readings.

But these boys really showed what they can do -- and hopefully where they're headed -- when they broke into an instrumental they'd penned themselves called "Far From Home." The song strayed well outside the boundaries of bluegrass, hewing closer to jazz. James Abrams' fleet-fingered mandolin playing showed a remarkable mastery not only of his instrument but also of a range of music styles. The group finished up with "El Comanchero," reputedly a Mexican song the group learned recently, though it sounded mighty backwoods to me.

P.M.W. & Warren Hellman
photo: Jay Blakesberg

The youthful audience clearly appreciated the Abrams Brothers, but it took Poor Man's Whiskey (aka PMW) to shake them from their fights, flirting and 'tween angst. Back for their third year, PMW took to the stage dressed in sparkling shirts and shiny hats, declaring they were hosting a show called "Dancing With the Bluegrass Stars." These guys know their audience: the kids immediately perked up -- ooh, shiny! -- and had difficulty maintaining their signature mix of apathy and embarrassment as the band launched into their first song. Even the hippest kids couldn't hold out: the band managed to get them to stand up, jump on cue and ultimately participate in a call-and-response session that ended by tricking kids into shouting "I like...homework!" (This little stunt earned the band the first, and only, good-natured "boo" of the entire show.)

The group then invited up its first dance "contestant," a young man named Ruben. Ruben laid down a few breakdance moves to the bluegrass; PMW's singer responded by doing an extremely respectable worm. And the dance-off was on, so to speak -- a joyful display of the best breakdancing and electric slides these kids had to offer. When a crew of four dancers took the stage, the entire crowd was riveted -- the students felt they were seeing themselves onstage, for once, and they loved it.

PMW was then joined on stage by none other than the impresario of the weekend, Warren Hellman. Hellman had donned a sparkly red shirt for the occasion, and sat in -- literally sat in, that is, on a stool -- and played banjo, while PMW found a pretty remarkable four-part harmony on the classic "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms." The band roared into a bastardized "Cripple Creek" that boasted fresh lyrics about things more relevant to the listeners -- test-taking, high-fiving your teacher, etc. (I actually did see a few students high-five their teachers during the song.)

But the highlight, as usual, was PMW's bluegrass-ification of a current radio hit. This year they chose Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry," which threw the crowd into a sing-along frenzy. Girls threw their arms around each other and belted out the single. The following song, "Mango," was penned by one of the band members, and it deviated just as sharply from bluegrass as "Big Girls": its tropical rhythms and bilingual lyrics had the kids really engaged.

The show ended with San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin welcoming Daniel Pearl's parents, Ruth and Judea, to the stage. (This was the kick-off event for concerts spanning 400 venues in 30 countries.) San Francisco proclaimed October 10th Daniel Pearl World Music day in honor of their slain journalist son. Pearl's mother spoke, saying how much her son would have loved the event and vowing that the "music of friendship, liberty, America will not be silenced."

Augie March
photo: jon r. luini

The afternoon show kicked off at 2:15 with a late addition to the bill: Australia's Augie March. The crowd was small, the sun was bright, and a surprising number of men felt compelled to flaunt their pectorals before the crowd. We didn't mind. Meanwhile, guilty folks on the lam from work mingled with San Francisco's legions of permanently under-employed, who'd left their usual coffee-shop haunts to catch the music.

I settled into the grass without an expectation in the world, and I was blown away. I'm not sure if March's recorded work on its own would have captured me, but seeing them live made me an instant fan. The band hit with everything they had, using their 45-minute set to give the crowd, in their words, "a cross-section of what we do." March's striking voice evoked variously Jeff Buckley, Marc Bolan and at times even a hint of Robert Plant, while many of his songs -- the wonderful "Sunstroke House" and "One Crowded Hour" among them -- hit with uncanny grace and passion. It didn't hurt that the group ranges comfortably into rock territory and clearly favors the kind of big, orgasmic finishes that inevitably draw in the audience.

March joked about how strange it was to play during the day after so many night-time gigs, adding, "but then, playing to people is actually a bit strange for this tour." I was sorry to hear that, because these guys are powerhouses on stage.

Americana stalwart Buddy Miller followed March's abbreviated set. While March was concerned with getting his band some recognition, Miller had nothing to prove. He's penned hits for several Nashville stars, and he's lauded as a singer, guitarist and songwriter by luminaries like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. (He played lead guitar in Harris' band for eight years.)

The highlight of Miller's set came early, in the form of the arresting adultery ballad "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger." Few songs capture the wounded cruelty of a spouse who's been cheated on as precisely or as well. It's just a great song, and Miller and backing singer Gail West gave it the reading it deserved, enunciating each chilling, heartbreaking line. As they sang, the Blue Angels flew low and slow -- but quietly, for once -- overhead. Either God or Warren Hellman must have talked to the Angels, because they were generally respectful of concert-goers' desire to hear the music throughout the weekend.

Miller's set was marked by the artistic congeniality that's come to characterize the festival. Alison Moorer joined him onstage for "Poison Love," and he praised Jim Lauderdale to the skies before singing a song they wrote together. Meanwhile, the meadow was filling up. As he finished his final song, the crowd gave him a heartfelt standing ovation.

T Bone Burnett
photo: jon r. luini

After a series of sound issues (which unfortunately continued through the following set), producer and musician T. Bone Burnett took the stage. Predictably, Burnett paid props to Warren Hellman, saying "this has to be the best music festival I've ever heard of." The crowd clapped their approval, though the applause may have been louder when he addressed the Blue Angels flying overhead. "I know there's some ambivalence about the military industrial complex," he said, "But if you've got angels and grass, that's two of the best things in life."

Burnett doesn't have the greatest singing voice, but he has his hands in a lot of musical pies, particularly as a producer, and something of that omnivorous musical spirit showed up in his set. He opened with Buddy Holly's infectious classic "Rave On," which was surprising but a lovely wake-up call to the sun-lulled meadow. "That's the way we played bluegrass in Fort Worth, Texas when I was growing up," drawled Burnett, before launching into a dreamy, expansive take on Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart."

Burnett then introduced his protege Doyle Bramhall, who sang "Travelin' Riverside Blues." The song, a shuffling blues with dirty guitar, was meant to be a heavy onslaught but the mic was out for half the song and the muddy mix didn't give it its due. Still, Bramhall's mean guitar playing managed to emerge from the murk. Fortunately, by the time Burnett launched into "Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce)," with its stark lyrics about a crumbling public figure, we could hear the shivering guitar work and Bramhall's sharp and scary solo. "That was all right, right?" Burnett asked as the song ended. "I don't perform much so I get self-conscious."

T Bone Burnett & Friends
photo: jay blakesberg

"I'm self-conscious, too," Neko Case told T Bone, as she ambled out on stage looking anything but. Her red hair flamed against the leafy backdrop, and she sang a couple of tunes solo and one duet with Burnett. Case's Patsy Cline-esque voice and wonderfully strange songwriting have earned her a devout following, and we could have listened to her all night.

But the festival had another surprise in store for us: none other than John Mellencamp. Mellencamp has reinvented himself over the years, reconnecting with roots music and styling himself as the working man's poet he started out as. With Case adding vocal color, he sang a song about the recent racial strife in Louisiana called simply "Jena." "A songwriter just reports what he sees," said Mellencamp by way of introduction. "I'm not trying to tell you what to believe, just what happened." A worthy effort, but Mellencamp really hit the crowd's nostalgia button when he closed with the anthemic "Little Pink Houses."

John Mellencamp
photo: jon r. luini

By the time Jeff Tweedy hit the stage, the meadow was remarkably full. It felt the way Saturdays used to feel before the festival got huge -- packed but not overwhelming. Tweedy, armed with just a guitar and his voice, opened with Wilco's "Sunken Treasure," and an amazing thing happened: the crowd actually stood up, stopped talking, and listened. As Cecily Wilson, a self-described "Tweedy-Bird," said, "The crowd was nice and quiet, just like he likes 'em." (A colleague just before the show had warned me about Tweedy's notoriety as a live performer: he's been known to castigate an audience for ten minutes straight for talking during his set.)

Fortunately, a chatty audience wasn't a problem Friday night, and Tweedy was in relatively upbeat form. "Hope you weren't in the mood for some bluegrass," he joked, "Cause I don't have any." When an audience member shouted out, "I loves me some bluegrass," Tweedy did feel compelled to go into a miniature, mainly joking diatribe about grammar -- "No," he said, "You don't 'loves' you anything." Later in the show he explained that he has a somewhat fraught relationship with grammar. "I once had someone tell me a song I wrote wasn't any good because it ended in a preposition. Since then I've been scarred, believe it or not."

Jeff Tweedy
photo: jon r. luini

Tweedy's show was a bonanza for Wilco and Uncle Tupelo fans -- and he put in a superhuman effort, staying onstage for over two hours. When he played Wilco's incandescent "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," you felt the ghost of the full band hovering over the song -- even as his solo version did just what it promised to do. The drunk heckler who'd contravened grammar earlier in the night continued to pester Tweedy, who took it in stride. "Maybe he'll pass out," Tweedy said at one point, though later he commended the drunk for adding "something" to the show.

As the sun sank and the crowd started to shiver, Tweedy clearly felt the shift in energy. "I'll allow you to dance," he generously offered -- or rather, commanded. "Dance. That might warm you up a little, dancing. I love all those clubs that play the acoustic music." He sang "Airline To Heaven," off of the second Mermaid Avenue release, and "Bob Dylan's 49th Beard" to an appreciative audience. But when the crowd heard the opening strum of "California Stars," a teeth-chattering cheer rose up. Tweedy delivered the song beautifully, switching to the harmony part on the chorus so that the crowd could sing the melody. The effect was an ingenious way to play with the inevitable audience participation, and it worked.

Jeff Tweedy
photo: jay blakesberg

Tweedy decided not to exit the stage -- "I don't wanna risk that, I'm having too much fun" -- though he ultimately did return for one mammoth, four-song encore that included "Passenger Side" (which Wilco hadn't even played at their recent Greek Theater show) and ended with the Uncle Tupelo classic "Acuff-Rose." By then, the sun had set, the crowd was frozen, but nobody seemed quite ready to leave. As we streamed out into the dark park on foot and on bicycle, you could almost hear the cacophony of music yet to come.

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