By Mike Alexis
As the sun strained to peak through the hazy, overcast sky, the excited chatter of children could be heard throughout Speedway Meadows. A row of huge charter buses and yellow school buses lined the perimeter of the Star stage as thousands of San Francisco United School District students gathered on the field.
The day was dedicated to Daniel Pearl, the American journalist and music lover who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. Through the participation of the Daniel Pearl Foundation Music Days, his memory and legacy were celebrated on this truly unique and spirited occasion.
Friday is atypical of the rest of the weekend's festivities and completely worth it to play hooky from work. Although the morning show is for the kids, way back behind a fence, adults are allowed to spread out and experience it for themselves. Whether we were unemployed, retired, or just not your typical 9-to-5ers, this was an eclectic bunch fitting of the eclectic nature of the morning's lineup. Where else can one see a young country artist from Austin and a legendary Bay Area hip-hop artist back-to-back? It was a motley crew of hippies, moms toting their toddlers, and fedora-wearing hipsters ready to go.
Ruby Jane took the stage at 10:30 as kids were still streaming in from 30th Street. Backed by three members of Austin's acclaimed western swing outfit Asleep at the wheel, the 14-year-old fiddle prodigy kicked off the day with Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm," setting a joyous and upbeat tone for all. During the song, groups of kids could be seen hopping around from foot to foot like their own funky version of square dancing, prompting Jane to remark, "That's some nice dancin' y'all."
At one point Jane threw t-shirts into the crowd, but since t-shirts aren't known for being aerodynamic, they didn't get very far and were snatched up by a few lucky ones in the front row.
By now, the lawn was packed and the sun was retreating even further behind an ever-graying sky. The forecast called for rain and we were hoping it would be kept at bay.
After Jane's set, Warren Hellman announced from the stage, "Good news and other news; I'm not playing the banjo anymore and Hammer will be out here in a few minutes."
News of MC Hammer's impending arrival to the stage drew huge cheers, but the kids didn't know what to make of Hellman's alleged retirement from the banjo. Past festivals saw him popping up on stage for a few numbers, which was always a welcome surprise. It turns out he was bluffing and was spotting sitting in with Emmylou Harris the very next night.
It's hard to believe that MC Hammer's breakout success began over 20 years ago, and although he may not rule the pop charts like he once did, there was palpable anticipation. "Almost Hammer time!" was again announced from the stage.
Dressed in a sharp black suit, sunglasses, and a headband, Hammer eschewed the parachute pants that he made famous over two decades ago. A dozen dancers took the stage from all directions as Hammer starting things off with the words, "I. Am. Hammer!" "Yes you are!" a man in the crowd replied enthusiastically. "Can you dance?" Hammer asked. "Yeah!"
Adults lined the fence to the left of the stage to get a better view, while a handful of the adventurous ones climbed trees for an even better one. A dad asked his two young boys, "Do you like Hammer?" "Yeah," they both replied between sips of their juice boxes.
Hammer covered all his well known hit songs: "Two Legit To Quit," "U Can't Touch This," "Addams Groove," and "Turn This Mutha Out" were each delivered in short blasts of kinetic energy, moving the crowd to sing along to every catchy chorus. "Turn This Mutha Out" inspired a sea of kids to wave their arms from side to side and "Too Legit to Quit" had dozens of people doing the song's signature hand signals.
People were clearly enjoying the irony of MC Hammer at HSBG. Without question he's the most "hardly strictly" of any act in the festival's eight year history (Steve Earle came close when he added a turntablist to his band last year).
There was a guy in a red tracksuit and "Hammer-style" shaved parallel lines in his hair along the temples. On his feet and clearly excited, his old school style was definitely on point with the day. One had to wonder if the haircut was a tribute to the famous MC done specifically for the occasion or if he just kicks it old school all year long. Whatever the case, he was clearly in the right place.
Warren Hellman once again took to the stage once Hammer's set was over and asked, "Would anyone like Hammer back next year? He's said he'd do it." The huge cheers that followed all but cinched his return.
Two hours later and it's over to the Banjo Stage. It was only 2:30 when the faint smell of marijuana caught my nose, immediately followed by Sharon Little's guitarist's proclamation that "something smells really good." It should be noted the stage was about 200 yards away. Perhaps he was talking about the kettle corn.
At this point the lawn was pretty full with hundreds of blankets and chairs marking their territory, but there was still plenty of room to maneuver a decent vantage point.
There's something special about Friday's show and it's not just the lack of lines for the port-a-potty. Maybe it was watching the crew put finishing touches on the other stages, while you make your way to the Banjo Stage; or it's the feeling that nothing else remotely as interesting, fun, or cool could be happening anywhere else at that moment. We are talking about a lineup that includes Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. In Golden Gate Park. For free.
The crowd was laidback but definitely in a party mood. A few people on the side hill sprawled out on their backs with eyes closed, while others just a few feet away danced with drinks in their hands. Sharon Little had just started and her sophisticated, jazzy Americana fit the mood perfectly. In a cute, flowing poodle skit, Little charmed us with her soulful voice and swaying hips, while her band in sharp black suits (a theme for the day) laid down a stripped-bare musical foundation.
The renegade entrepreneur was another theme for the day as a dreadlocked hippie in a tie-dyed shirt sold cookies from a giant basket. Another gentleman was spotted selling huge rice krispie treats ("very strong" I heard him say) to hungry neighbors. Not to be outdone, a determined businessman roamed the field peddling ice-cold beer for five dollars a pop. Luckily I was able to get one of these pricey beverages before a Sherriff put a stop to his activities and escorted him off the field.
Just as the Jerry Douglas Band took to the stage the clouds turned ominous. There was still no sign of rain but it was at this point a distinct possibility. As I was looking skyward, gauging the weather, a flock of geese swept low over the crowd in a perfect "V", which actually drew a smattering of cheers. This was Friday's version of the Blue Angels- the Navy flight squadron that has become a festival tradition, and somewhat of a nuisance, blasting overhead all weekend long.
Douglas, a 12-time Grammy winner, started things off with a fast-tempo instrumental that highlighted his signature, lightning-fast slide-guitar, as well as the impressive chops of his fiddle and guitar player. The band switched it up and next tackled Bill Monroe's "Can't You Hear Me Callin'", giving this well known song a little more muscle but keeping its traditional spirit in tact. Showcasing the band's diversity, they followed with a "hardly strictly" number written by Wayne Shorter of the Weather Report.
A woman yelled out, "You warm my heart" which was just about the nicest sentiment heard all day. Later on it became apparent that she was pretty buzzed as her sentiments turned to random shouting of non sequiturs such as "America!" and "Best music ever!" during Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's set. Still, she was having a blast and it's nice to know those rice krispie treats were as strong as the seller promised.
Speaking of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, at around 5:00pm the wait was finally over. As the wind swept over the field as if on cue, Krauss and Plant walked from opposite ends of the stage and met each other in the middle. The crowd rose to its feet as the first and only rain drop of the day landed on my arm.
The band started with "Rich Woman," a slow-burner that had Krauss and Plant harmonizing throughout. Featuring band leader T-Bone Burnett's signature dark guitar squeals, the song slowly built and then erupted in a cacophonous crescendo.
At points throughout the set, Plant would step aside and let Krauss take center stage and lead vocals, followed by Krauss returning the favor. Mainly however, they shared the lead, melding her warm, high-lonesome tone with his signature bluesy gruff vocals, as showcased on the Plant penned "l'm In the Mood (For a Melody)."
A haunting a cappella version of Krauss's "Down to the River to Pray" followed with beautifully rendered four-part harmonies that hushed the crowd completely.
A few songs later, however, the mood took a 180-degree turn and the band launched into the rollicking "Gone, Gone, Gone." A few young women were on their boyfriends' shoulders swaying back and forth and waving their hands, while a shirtless bearded guy spun around next to him. We were in full-on rock concert mode--all that was missing were beach balls being passed around.
Krauss and Plant left us on a high note. With the sun setting over the trees behind us, it was time to trek home and rest up for another two full days of non-stop music. With so much amazing music behind us, it was hard to believe there was so much ahead.