By Jon Pruett, George Martin, and Eric Shea
Saturday, October 4th and four or five miles before approaching Golden Gate park, more music fans pepper the bus. A smiling, grey-haired couple boards on Masonic - he with an old worn out Emmylou Harris shirt and she wrapped in Balinese batiks. At the next stop a young family gets on lugging a portable cooler - who knew that they made Gillian Welch shirts small enough to fit a child? A mile before the last stop to HSB 8 and the bus is buzzing with conversations and questions that all run into each other like an orchestra tuning up before a performance. "Is Justin Townes Earle really going to join his dad Steve on stage?" "Did you know his middle name is a tribute to Townes Van Zandt?" "Any possibilities of Emmylou joining the Desert Rose Band on stage?" "Will Tift Merritt be playing solo?"
Rolling on to the grounds this year and two other things are on everybody's mind - first: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and San Francisco's annual Fleet Week celebration diverged, so there won't be any loud Navy jet fighters screaming over Golden Gate Park blotting out the music. Secondly: all of us are about 85 percent certain we're going to get rained on this year.
The threat of rain on Saturday may have had some impact on the crowds, which are never less than overflowing, but in comparison to the amount that was to come the next day, seem positively thin. But weather has never been a deterrent for this San Francisco event, especially for those who travelled from afar. Said one Brian Gallagher of Ridgewood, Queens, New York, "It's a great show; I had to come." One who traveled not quite so far was Hunter Brown of Modesto, who said, "This is better than Christmas . . . Emmylou for breakfast. This saves me a trip to Telluride. This is better, and it's local."
Over at the Star Stage, spiffily dressed in matching dark suits, the Dry Branch Fire Squad looked up at gray, overcast skies that were threatening rain with little more than a shrug. After a few songs with instruments, the group did a spare, intense, a capella gospel number. "We do that kind of song just to clear away the city slickers," smiled band founder Ron Thomason.
"We needed an old-time banjo player for a song we worked up," he said. "We found an itinerant banjo player hanging around; we didn't get his name, neither. He looks like he don't know where his next meal is coming from. He plays the banjo in F, without a capo. The only persons I ever heard do that are Earl Scruggs and this poor person."
And with that, HSB founder Warren Hellman strode on stage, setting off a standing ovation in the crowd. The song was "Orphan Train," by the late Utah Phillips, propelled by Hellman's frailing banjo.
On the short trek to the Rooster Stage fallen eucalyptus leaves perfume the air as Carlene Carter takes the microphone. The crowd is still thin enough to easily navigate around and hike up the adjacent hill, stage left, where blankets are sprawled over fresh mulch, picnics are happening and an appreciative audience is resting between the trees on the hill, hanging on to Carter's lyrics off the title track to her Strong Girl album. Young people resting among the green dampness echo a Pacific Northwest vibe with their flannel-clad apparel and long hair. A bearded young man chomps on a giant barbequed turkey leg before telling his friend, "She's third generation Carter Family, you know." Meanwhile, back at the Banjo Stage Laurie Lewis & Friends are covering the Carter Family's "Sweet Fern." The circle will be unbroken after all.
High noon and the Waco Bros have stumbled onto the Star Stage. The food court here has tables and chairs but they're already crowded with aging punks, young hipsters, and a diverse amalgam of folks hungry for country rock and festival food. The blended smell of garlic fries and fresh kettle corn is an amazing thing. A disheveled Jon Langford steps up to the mic and the band unleashes some rowdy twang-punk, tinged with some of that Brit-flavored pub rock. Fists full of bottled microbrews fill the air and the people are shouting and cheering. Langford threatens to go into a festival medley but then surprises everyone with an insurgent cover of The Clash's take on Sonny Curtis and The Crickets' "I Fought The Law." Dancing ensues and things heat up even more when the band segues into George Jones' "White Lightning." There are no genres here. It is all good music.
Over at the Banjo Stage, Peter Rowan brought Bay Areans Jody Stecher on mandolin and Keith Little on banjo to sing harmonies with him. Rowan featured some of his all-time favorites like "Land of the Navajo," "Panama Red" and "Moonlight Midnight Moonlight" that got excellent crowd reaction. His final number, "Moonlight Midnight..." ended with a long, almost Grateful Dead-style jam.
Just as Rowan's set was ending a tall figure in a shimmering white sparkly jumpsuit began moving through the crowd. He wore a helmet/mask that covered his whole head and spoke through some sort of amplification system built into the suit. The costume was totally covered with what looked like pearlescent glass beads, or tubes, and when the sunlight hit him it was an astonishing sight, which rather invoked the look of New Orleans Mardi Gras. He wouldn't say who he really was, but only identified himself as "Angel Man, San Francisco's first official superhero."
He's just one of many "non-scheduled performers" who are popping up with more regularity each year. Angel Man can take his place next to "guy with giant snake on around his neck" for those individuals causing a constant stream of rubberneckers. There are a fair amount of "guerilla performances" from bands brave enough to lug their equipment on to a back path and just set up until they get shut down. There's a group dressed up like Shakespearean misfits, playing folk-jam pop, a progressive rock band wearing masks in the back lot, and most impressively, a two-piece known as the Ferocious Few, who play acoustic punk-blues in the manner of the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Watch out for these guys in the future, as one onlooker put it, "this is the best thing I've seen all day."
Back to the main events, a large crowd has reconvened at the Star Stage to take advantage of a rare reunion appearance of the Desert Rose Band, the 1980s country rock band founded by former Byrds member Chris Hillman. Hillman introduces the set with "She Don't Love Nobody." It sounds amazing, especially for a band that has only reunited three times since they broke up 19 years ago. Touting pedal steel legend JayDee Maness who has played with the Byrds and Gram Parsons, this could very well be what the Flying Burrito Brothers would have sounded like had they stayed in semi-original formation. They even do a stellar version of the Burritos' "Wheels" replete with three-part harmonies and a fuzz-box on the guitar. It's not a stretch to say that Cosmic American Music has aged well like a good smoky scotch.
Their set got the huge crowd on its feet, swaying and dancing to the familiar songs. At about the same time, back on the Banjo Stage, Emmylou Harris was making her first of several weekend appearances as "Three Girls and Their Buddy," with Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and guitarist Buddy Miller. The group didn't prepare a "band" set, but set up a song circle, taking turns doing solos, or solos accompanied by Miller's fluid guitar.
Guy Clark bestows the Rooster Stage crowd with an exquisite version of "LA Freeway," a silver haired Verlon Thompson at his side providing close harmonies braiding so tightly that at times a third voice pops out of their overtones. Hillside, the people dwelling in the trees are so collectively quiet, like they're attending church in the woods with Clark and Thompson providing the hymns. This silence is broken with hoots, hollers and whistles after Clark sings about his landlord being a "son of a bitch." By the end of the song beer bottles are clanging and two hooded sweatshirt lovers are making out on a hand-me-down patchwork quilt.
Like the tree covered hill next to the Rooster Stage, there is a similar shady grove to the left side facing the Star Stage where the Wacos have just finished playing. Under a little tree with a lot of overgrowth, a handful of random lurkers are gathering under the branches and leaves. It's a well sheltered hideout with a near perfect vantage point of the stage that Richard Thompson will soon perform on. Meanwhile, whoever is DJing should be awarded a medal for their arbitrary selection of good tunes. Dean & Britta, J.J. Cale, Willie Nelson, Gene Clark, Natalie Merchant (ok, maybe not a medal), Fleet Foxes, Joni Mitchell. Thompson takes the stage like royalty and the applause comes like thunder as he opens with the powerful "Bathsheba Smiles." Midway through the song, the sun appears. Indian Summer has broken the day wide open. When the clapping subsides, Thompson says, "Trust a Brit to bring out the sun, eh?" He plays his guitar picking at lightning speed, never missing a note. Then more applause followed by a mawkish "Thank you, brother" from someone in the crowd. Thompson replies, "Thank you, brother. We're brothers now, eh? Huh. Well, we'll see about that." He then plays a gripping version of "Walking On A Wire." Thompson interrupts the clapping to explain that he learned about how the United States Marines refer to Baghdad as "Dad" to preface a song called "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," where he gets inside the heads of occupants. The mood is rich with intensity and thank goodness protest music still thrives.
There was a lot of dancing in the audience areas Saturday, perhaps no more anywhere than for Asleep at the Wheel at the Arrow Stage, as the afternoon drew to a close. The band, now headquartered in Austin, Tex., has an old Bay Area connection, having played regularly at Berkeley's Longbranch Saloon in the early 1970s. Only singer Ray Benson is an original member, but the band has always played high quality Western Swing designed for dancing.
With such hits as "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," "Cotton Eyed Joe," and "House of Blue Lights," they had the crowd up and moving. Along the sides, serious swing dancers did their thing. The sun was going down, the band was playing Bob Wills' theme song, "We're the Texas Playboys from the Lone Star State," and the mood was magical.
Benson wound up with his big set piece, "Hot Rod Lincoln" to wild applause. Those who still had energy began to walk to the Banjo Stage where Steve Earle was winding up his show and the Saturday portion of the festival, leaving glistening piles of dumped ice from picnic coolers reflecting from the electric lights that had been turned on to allow the crowd to safely exit the now-dark park.