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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2007 (Sunday)

By Jon Pruett, Jim Welte & Chris Streng

The Wronglers
photo: jay blakesberg

One thing is for sure, Warren Hellman knows how to throw a party. In fact, it was Hellman himself and his old-time band, the Wronglers, who greeted early arrivals at the Porch Stage on an effervescently beautiful Sunday morning. It was fitting that the Beatles' classic album Revolver should play after the Wronglers finished their set. That's an album that was completely diversely and uniformly excellent. Sure, there were bluegrass legends scattered throughout the event's five stages, but there were also plenty of bands that had little more in common with traditional bluegrass than other than instrumentation and a connection to roots music.

The harmony-heavy, crisp classic rock stylings of Mother Hips started the day for the Arrow stage and their driving sound earned them an insistent call for an encore well after they'd left the stage. By 11:45 sales at the covert beer stalls were brisk.

Moonalice Guitar Toss
photo: jay blakesberg

By the time Moonalice were in full swing, the feeling at the Arrow stage resembled a very large backyard bar-be-que (albeit one with GE Smith & Jack Casady on guitar and bass respectively.) Singer Roger McNamee presciently tapped into the mood of the day announcing that all Moonalice CDs, stickers and posters were free for the taking. "Music is free!" he announced to rapturous applause, a sentiment to which Mr. Hellman would surely concur.

Charlie Louvin's rich, weathered voice supplied mellow, traditional country music to a standing-room-only crowd at the Rooster stage. At one point Louvin said they needed some plywood at the foot of the stage for dancing. He regaled the crowd with stories and songs from Kris Kristofferson, the Carter Family and Gram Parsons, further establishing his reputation as a living country legend.

Poor Man's Whiskey kicked off the day on the Star stage. The seven-piece group hails from the Bay Area's Sonoma County, but looked like a band of Hansels and Pinocchios in brown shorts, high socks, white shirts, and green triangle hats. They were joined by two female dancers in traditional German outfits, bringing a Bavarian look to their self-titled "Californacana" sound. The highlight of the band's set was a rousing rendition of their very own "Whiskey Creek," which was tossed and turned into what guitarist and mandolin player Jason Beard called "Whiskey Post," incorporating both "Whipping Post" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" from the Allman Brothers. It was one of the most bombastic sets of the weekend, but it was followed by one that may have epitomized the diversity of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass all by itself.

Buskers "The Ferocious Few"
photo: Ray Bussolari

The do-it-yourself spirit of San Francisco's independent music scene was on full display as well. With John F Kennedy Blvd. cordoned off for pedestrians, it wasn't uncommon to see small pick-up bands happily jamming away on the sidewalk. By the late afternoon, whole bands were setting up portable amps and drums for the pedestrians delight. A young girl in Victorian marionette garb named Sparrow dazzled the children while confusing the tourists with her accordion proficiency while just 100 feet away, the Ferocious Few blasted out an untamed cowpunk hybrid. This duo featured one of the more manic drummers to ever beat the skins and a vocal/guitar delivery reminiscent of swamp-punk pioneers, Doo Rag. Their sound was too unhinged for the main stage but they certainly delivered a good time for the adventurous listeners.

Meanwhile on the officially sanctioned Rooster stage, Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna legend Jorma Kaukonen (ably backed by Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin) displayed absolute mastery of the finger-picked guitar. With a wide range of material ranging from the Rev. Gary Davis to the Grateful Dead (the third Dead cover of the day to these ears), it was hard to imagine a sound he couldn't coax from his guitar. Even the Blue Angels roaring overhead didn't faze him. After a particularly deafening run, Koukonen asked aloud "What key do you think those planes are in?" to the appreciative laughter of the assembled crowd. Kaukonen has a big following on this side side of the bay and his departure from the stage causes the crowds to move on en masse. This, combined with the fact that Doc Watson is scheduled up next back at the Banjo Stage, results in massive, though still pretty mellow, exodus to the sprawling grounds. This left a devoted crowd to catch up with Dave Alvin during his set.

David Alvin
photo: jon r. luini

With a history that stretches back from Los Angeles punk saviors X, up through the Blasters, the Knitters, and his own solo career - Alvin is a key mover in the roots rock scene and rarely fails to ignite a little bit of passion when he plays. He kicks off with "Fourth of July" - the track most famously performed by X, but it's his tune and he owns it onstage. Helped out with fellow roots-rock veteran Chris Gaffney on the accordian, Alvin and company are obviously at ease and yet impassioned by the rush of their organ-drenched rock 'n' roll music. There's nothing but silence in the crowd as Alvin launches into the evocative epic, "Abilene." They finish off with the classic "Marie Marie" from the Blasters' 1981 debut and we're back on the path.

At the Star Stage, the Sadies, the Toronto-based quartet fronted by brothers Dallas and Travis Good, mixed speedy surf guitar and rockabilly with traditional bluegrass and country into a sound that was all their own but also honored each of its influences. The group was joined throughout their performance by the Goods' parents, Bruce and Margaret, who lent a hand on vocals on a number of tracks, including a cover of the Louvin Brothers' "Higher Power" and a lightning-fast version of Bob Wills' "Stay a Little Longer." They were also joined by frequent collaborator Neko Case on a stirring version of "Evangeline," the song the Band and Emmylou Harris made famous on The Last Waltz concert film.

David Grisman w/ Curly Seckler
photo: jay blakesberg

The day's most resilient set belonged to Cincinnati's Heartless Bastards, who dealt with countless sound troubles but ploughed right through them, with singer Erika Wennerstrom sounding like a less manic Janis Joplin at times, conveying both nuance and power in her lyrics. On the other side of the festival grounds, David Grisman and the Bluegrass Experience were doling out a lesson in traditional bluegrass, with the 88-year-old Curly Seckler providing some fantastic singing and loads of quips and comical anecdotes. "It's a great honor to be here, but it's a great honor to be any place at my age," Seckler said. After their set, the band went backstage to watch Warren Hellman, the man who makes the event possible, receive a distinguished achievement from the International Bluegrass Music Association. In receiving the honor, which was presented by bluegrass legends Ron Thomason and Hazel Dickens, Hellman characteristically deflected the attention to the event's staff and expressed his appreciation.

Warren & Chris Hellman & IBMA award
photo: jon r. luini

"One of the things we've tried to do with this festival is to make it a family weekend, and I hope we've done that," he said.

It's just after mid-day and it doesn't seem possible, but it's true - the day seems to get brighter and Warren need not worry, the families have arrived in droves. The previous week before HSB landed in ever green Golden Gate Park, San Francisco was getting its first taste of the crispness of fall and the dreariness seemed here to stay. But lo and behold, here we were staring right into the unblinking eye of an Indian Summer.

After hitting all the stages at least one time, it's time to backtrack to the Porch Stage in order to catch a set from Bill Callahan. Callahan is fairly renown in indie rock circles for his former band Smog, whose lo-fi, sparse, and off-kilter sounds were a constant on college radio playlists in the '90s. In the years since, he has built up a reputation as an amazing songwriter and his recent solo album, Woke On A Whaleheart is rich in the sounds of elemental folk and gospel, mixed in with his own idiosyncratic style. It makes sense that he's here and his deep, rich voice sound great in the open air. The band play a short, enthusiastic set augmented by a violinist while a crowd made up of hipsters, hipsters with children, one slow-dancing couple, and typical HSB festival-goers (not that there really is such a thing) enjoy the sounds.

Bill Kirchin
photo: jon r. luini

Passing through the grand ole Banjo Stage (well, you can't actually cut through anywhere near the stage, as the crowd is as thick as cheesecake, but you can make your way around provided you keep moving), Earl Scruggs is delivering a smoking set of classic material (some you might expect - "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke", some you might not - Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere."). There's some sort of justice in the world if a man like Earl Scruggs is playing in front of this many people.

Diehards of the country-rock sounds of the '60s and '70s will know that Bill Kirchen was the guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen during their heyday. But Kirchen hasn't ever really stopped performing in the years since. Instead, he's become a hero of the electric guitar and has been recording records of storming rockabilly, blues, and country music. He comes to the Arrow Stage just a few months after the release of his newest album, Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods. The album is big on bluegrass and Western swing, which Birchen incorporates with ease into his live show, wielding his trademark Fender Telecaster. The set cuts through some Creedence Clearwater Revival-style jamming before embarking on tracks that would have made Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt smile. Towards the end of the set, Kirchen dropped in a bit of the Iggy and the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Might sound like an odd choice, but it worked (and apparently Kirchen went to high school with the punk icon).

Doc Watson
photo: jon r. luini

Doc Watson's fatherly tones are echoing over the hill, but the Star Stage beckons. Down at the furthest edge of the festival, this stage is hosting a set from New Jersey jam band, Railroad Earth. Their fusion of bluegrass, marathon jam sessions, and maybe thanks in part to the Jack Kerouac reference of their band name brings out the most celebratory crowds we've seen at the festival. There's barely a grass-stained bottom on the ground when the group performs and the crowd is up and spinning and shucking and jiving for their entire set. A long train of revelers runs through the crowd, barefoot and grinning. Some tops are removed, skirts are twirled, and one man in particular sheds everything and goes skipping bare-skinned through the throngs. Del McCoury comes on stage and the newly energized band set into "Long Way to Go." Railroad leader Todd Sheaffer profusely thanked the crowd and vowed to return to Golden Gate Park "anytime you'll have us." This whets our appetite for McCoury's following performance, but Emmylou is on soon and it wouldn't be HSB if we didn't polish off the day with her reassuring beauty.

Emmylou Harris
photo: jay blakesberg

Calling on a great set of bluegrass pickers, Emmylou Harris ran through numbers from two ends of the country music spectrum - George Jones and Gram Parsons. She also dropped in a little Bill Monroe (in the form of "Get Up, John"), as wells as other greats like "The Angels Rejoiced Last Night" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues". As the show drew to a close, Emmylou brought out Hazel Dickens and the two grand dames of Americana presented a custom-made banjo from Gibson to festival mastermind, Warren Hellman. By this time, the sun was down and the day's events were fading into history. Time to pack it up, move it out, and begin the countdown until 2008.

After such a lively and relaxing day, one is tempted to wonder if the celebrated Summer of Love was not really a fixed point in time. Perhaps it is a temporal worm-hole located somewhere beneath Golden Gate Park, which needs only the right combination of music, people and sunshine, to open and embrace us all once again, as it did on Sunday.

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