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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2009 (Friday, Oct 2)

By Sarah Bardeen

Friday morning. It's typically the quietest period for Hardly Strictly, if you don't count the hundreds of school children bused in to spend a few hours partaking of old-timey music. (The day is also part of Daniel Pearl World Music Day, honoring the slain journalist, violinist and music-lover.) But this was no ordinary Friday morning. In a bid to appeal to the broad cross-section of San Francisco youth, none other than '90s rap icon MC Hammer was appearing as the second act. You could tell something was up: inside the fence, ringed with security personnel in yellow jackets, school kids swarmed. Outside the fence, fighting for space on the rise above the Star Stage, a motley conglomeration of hipsters (including a man with a cardboard hammer on his head), old-school Hammer fans and parents with kids accumulated.

It was a preternaturally beautiful day in the park, comfortable even in the shade. My thermos of tea was a luxury but not the necessity it has been in previous years. In the morning light, the trees looked like art deco paintings. Warren Hellman, one clipped wing in a cast at his side, appeared onstage and read a short letter from Barack Obama, drawing cheers from the crowd. Then the Fireants, a teenaged band out of Austin, struck up a set of Americana/folk/grass that owes a large debt to country rock. Unlike Poor Man's Whiskey, a band that's put on quite a show for the youth in years past, the Fireants opt for a straight set - no antics, just impressive playing. During their second song Warren Hellman stepped out again, breaking the band's flow to tell the distracted students, "By the way, it's okay to dance." You might not think our youth would respond to such an exhortation...but you'd be wrong. The tweens were up and do-si-do-ing as if they'd been waiting for an excuse to shed their cool and bounce around. The Fireants grew a little more engaging, asking the kids "Can you dig it?" The kids responded that yes, they emphatically could dig it. A boy with an afro - green down the middle and black on each side - got on the ground and did the worm.

The set ended at 11 a.m. - short, but just about right for the kids, many of whom were still filing in from their schoolbuses. Carlos Garcia, the much-lauded superintendent of San Francisco schools, jumped onstage and called Warren Hellman "San Francisco's Santa Claus." And then the stage filled with dancers in white pants and black vests, and finally, dressed identically to his dancers, MC Hammer appeared. No Hammer pants? No matter. The meadow was full, and the adults began arriving in droves, shoving, phone cameras held aloft. "No pictures!" shout the security guards, to no avail. The kids have been temporarily stunned into stillness - no more goofy dancing, just rapt attention. "Who is this guy," they seem to be saying, "And how does he know how to rap?"

"We'd like to welcome you all to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival...," Hammer says with a wink, breaking into "Turn This Mutha Out," followed by "Addams Groove." Hammer has definitely drawn the biggest non-student crowd ever on a Friday morning, and he also taunts the separation of church and state by singing "Pray." But he really wins the students over when he orchestrates a Michael Jackson tribute, complete with an MJ-sound-alike who sings "Working Day and Night." Hammer and the vocalist jump into the crowd, and the kids surge forward to dance with them. He rolls into "Too Legit To Quit," and now all the adults have shed their inhibitions: teachers are dusting off dance moves they haven't used in decades. A white 20-something guy shouts out "What time is it?" and a short, older woman shrieks "It's Hammer time!" The kids have now jumped onstage with Hammer's crew and they are getting down. What will Hammer do?

"It's twenty years later," he tells the kids. "And they still. Can't. Touch. This!" The adults in the crowd lose their minds. Hammer's dancers do the iconic, big pants dance on the first chorus and then, Holy Cow, Hammer himself does it. The man can still move. Interestingly, the students further back in the meadow look as unfocused watching Hammer as they do with the hardcore bluegrass acts. A little girl in a pink shirt breaks out moves that are way too advanced for her (perhaps) nine years, and Hammer teaches the kids onstage how to break it down. I feel all a-flutter. I run into the Hammerhead (real name Zakary Zide) a few minutes later. He applauds Hammer's professionalism and great performance, and the morning's events draw to a close.

Yet again, Friday afternoon at HSB proves that no adult within San Francisco city limits holds a full-time job. The meadow at the Banjo Stage is filling up by noon, a good two hours before local band Poor Man's Whiskey is set to play. A flock of geese fly low over the crowd, eliciting a smattering of applause. A small American flag wavers in the breeze. A man registering voters (and trying to legalize pot) wanders through the crowd, a cigarette dangling from his lips. In front of me I overhear a couple say they're from Canada. I butt in. "Did you say you're from Canada?" Indeed they are - Don and Karen Hurst from Winnipeg - and they came down for their second HSB (the first was an anniversary gift), bringing friends with them this time. Karen: "The lineup is just incredible." Don: "We fell in love with San Francisco, the people are so friendly." Finally Warren Hellman appears, to an instant standing ovation. "You guys are gonna make me cry," he says, seeming to mean it.

PMW's set of Dead-influenced Americana leans heavily on the Bay Area references, and you have to love the name of their new album: Dark Side of the Moonshine. Lovely tunes, but the one that makes the biggest impression is "PMS," featuring two flapper dancers and lines like "PMS...I'm Pretty Much Screwed. I'm sorry babe/ I'll do pretty much anything/ to get along with you." The crowd is amused, and hot.

It's certifiably sweltering by the time Tom Morello, aka the Nightwatchman, takes the stage. Dragonflies are hovering. The Rage Against the Machine frontman seems an odd choice at first - a lot of folks in the crowd don't seem to know who he is and they chit-chat through songs like "House Gone Up in Flames." But when he starts talking about his grandma, the crowd gets attentive. She recently passed away at 82 in the same room where she was born, and Morello launches into the lovely "Saint Isabelle" in her honor. The crowd is clearly moved, and he rewards us with flattery, calling us "excellent and attractive." He then plays a RATM favorite - "Guerilla Radio" - and bemoans the state of the health care debate. "I'm quite confident that the rich will stay healthy and the sick will stay poor." I spy a beardy guy give a high-ten to an ethereal hippie.

And then suddenly Steve Earle and Allison Moorer appear onstage! Moorer looks lovely, while Steve Earle's brief flirtation with short hair and a svelte figure is over - he looks like himself, circa The Wire, again: bearded and bellied. The group begins singing "This Land Is Your Land" in its radical entirety. (Echoes of Obama's inauguration.) Earle and Moorer sound fantastic - Earle's snarl is just what the lazy afternoon needed. But when Boots Riley of Oakland hip-hop group the Coup appears onstage, the ante is seriously upped. He throws down a few verses from the inspiring "Heven Tonight" (off of 2001's Party Music) and the crowd is on its feet. This is an event -- this is what we come to HSB for.

Tom Morello kicks into high gear. "'This Land' is America's alternative national anthem. So I'm gonna ask you to stand the f*ck up.... Woody Guthrie knew that history wasn't made by generals...Allow your eyes and ears to be revolutionized by what you see and hear." Suddenly there's more heat emanating from the stage than from the afternoon sun, and people are emotional, totally engaged. The entire crowd is told to jump, and they do it. Repeatedly. The song - ultimately an indictment of private property - ends, and Morello signs off. "Take it easy, but take it." Eugene, Canadian Don's friend, passes by me. "That's why we're here. That's it right there. Tears in my eyes this afternoon." I turn to my friend Nick, who simply says, "If you start weak, end strong."

And then the heart and soul of the afternoon arrives, a man who embodies what the festival is about. John Prine is an incredible songwriter, but his talent lies not just in his melodies but in his storytelling - a common theme that runs through Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, where people are drawn by the pathos that's been drained of most pop music. Few songwriters have such an enduring body of songs to stand on either, and he proceeds to play a clutch of them: "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and "Grandpa Was a Carpenter."

Prine looks natty up on stage - he and the band wear suits and ties despite the heat - and he's in a storytelling mood. "I never meant to write this song, but I was working with this stubborn record producer and he said you need one more song. I said, 'No I don't.'" But Prine went and wrote a song in his hotel room, vowing to make it the worst song ever. It made it onto the album. "After I played it a couple hundred times, I came to sort of like it." He breaks into "Fish and Whistle," following it up with "Glory of True Love." When he finally sings "Angel From Montgomery" ("Bonnie Raitt made a big hit out of it. Thank you, Bonnie."), the audience sings along. Something about John Prine's plainspoken style, his hangdog humor, strikes a nerve in this crowd. As he closes with "Muhlenberg County," Leslie Leslie, who's seeing Prine for the first time since the '70s, gushes about the festival. "It brings you back to the '60s," she says, just before one of the ubiquitous lawn gophers pops up under her legs. "Ooh! I thought it was my cell phone vibrating," she says with a laugh.

Lyle Lovett closes out the day on a more intellectual note, his big (excuse us, large) band in tow. Or at least that's what we expect, until he plays "Choke My Chicken" - the Texan's in a randy mood, apparently. But the mood shifts repeatedly. With his chorus and a stage full of musicians he inspires with "I Will Rise Up," then gradually whittles down the group until it's a small combo, and he's singing the singer-songwriter material that's the heart and soul of the festival - songs like "L.A. County." It's a nice transition, and creates a palpable shift among the audience, who's starting to get cold as the sun dips and the breeze comes up.

"To be able to stand on the same stage where John Prine was..." Lovett says, shaking his head. And then he introduces "Loretta," saying "There's a song by one of my favorite songwriters, Townes Van Zandt." (Van Zandt is easily another spiritual patron of this festival, mixing humor and passion in lines like "Spends my money like a waterfall/Loves me like I want her to.") The quartet slides into straight bluegrass and sings "Keep It In Your Pantry." More bawdy humor ensues, and Lovett gets loquacious. "One thing I love about singing this style is singing around one mic, though one problem with that style is your mouth gets awfully close to another man's mouth." Seems like a funny thing to say in San Francisco, but maybe there was some irony in there. He closes out a well-received set with some favorites: "If I Had a Boat," "My Baby Don't Tolerate" and the ridiculously catchy "Church." As the faithful fans pack up, the moon rises over the stage, white against the pale blue sky.

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