By Chris Streng, Eric Shea, Jonathan Pruett and Mike Alexis
As the 5 Fulton bus moves closer to Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park, more festivalgoers climb aboard. They're easy to spot - just look for sun hats, coolers, blankets, picnic baskets, Americana themed concert t-shirts and ear-to-ear smiles. The Indian summer sun is already beaming on this promising Saturday and the faint smell of sunblock grows stronger. As we get closer, a good number of colorfully painted hippie busses dot the street, echoing San Francisco's psychedelic past.
On this clear and blustery October morning, one must wonder how San Francisco looks to the tourists in the open-air tour busses that crawl through Golden Gate Park. While bluegrass fans of all stripes make their way to the festival, gangs of teens in hot pants and fairy wings caught busses downtown for the annual Love Parade on Market Street or the Castro Street Fair. This eclectic mix of people may have baffled the sightseers but it was strangely representative of the rich diversity of San Francisco and, by extension, of the line-up at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2009.
Upon entering the park it's already obvious that there are significantly more attendees this year as evidenced by small towers of bicycles locked onto street signs and trees (the park-provided bike racks were full). Looking around, one can't help but notice that it's getting harder to differentiate between the audience and the performers as a good number of local artists, vendors, buskers and roots-music enthusiasts are dressed in their finest cowboy boots, brown suede vests, overalls, plaid shirts and of course the perquisite rock 'n' roll uniform of denim and leather.
Once inside the festival grounds the mixture of sights, sounds and smells is almost overwhelming. Old-school hippies, couples in all weather hiking gear and the omnipresent hipsters are all in attendance. For the boys, the "unemployed" look is popular with a biker-chic mix of vintage beer shirts and facial scruff while the girls dressed far more upscale than in previous years with the "urban cowgirl" look now the exception rather than the rule. A look at crowd demographics would lead one to believe that dogs are big fans of bluegrass as many attendees brought their canine companions for an afternoon in the park.
It's still morning in San Francisco when Eliza Gilkyson steps up to the Arrow Stage and delivers a set of politically charged folk songs accentuated with plenty of twangy-reverb from the pedal steel player. The crowd is carefully setting up camp for the day as Gilkyson rallies a few new fans with her pro-Michael Moore/anti-corporate capitalism stance. The strong organic coffee is kicking people into phase-one of the day and, it being San Francisco, the reality that it's never too early for shirtlessness and pierced nipples sets in. This same stage a few hours later will host an entirely different crowd as Billy Joe Shaver brings the real honky tonk to life with a rollicking set that turns an open air field into a sweat-soaked bar where it feels like it's way after midnight and the only thing that matters is the croak of a familiar song and clink of glass on the bar top.
At the crack of noon, Buddy Miller is doing his best to break in the newest stage here this year, the Towers of Gold. Miller holds his own with a blend of raucous, roots-like gospel and Nashville soul. Tucked in a grassy pasture surrounded by eucalyptus trees, Miller and his band exemplify what is so fantastic about this festival and what it brings out in people. That a festival like this can come into town and draw these kinds of crowds and this kind of reaction during a time when we are told over and over again how singles rule the world, albums are dead and everyone needs a fanatic Twitter-driven fanbase is pretty amazing. What we learn today (and each year at HSB) is that performers still matter; that artists with great songs still matter. The folks at HSB know these songs deeply and are familiar with album cuts. These are the real unsung lifeblood of the music industry--the fans. Then Emmylou Harris joins Miller on stage and we know things are going to get even better. And they do. After she departs, the lord of low-slung denim trousers arrives, Robert Plant. Well, let's just say if you haven't even eaten lunch yet and Robert Plant is onstage singing Lefty Frizzell songs, then things are going to be all right that day.
After Miller's christening of the Towers of Gold stage, Austin's Okkervill River take over and bring a bit of their indie-rock-tinged country pop to the masses. Their poetic roots style is like Oscar Wilde fronting Uncle Tupelo and all the younger folks with colored Ray-Bans are nodding along to every word. The last few years saw a particularly strong rise in the amount of (ironic?) mustaches and headbands, but it seems like this year everyone has moved on to Ray-Bans and fedoras which, we have to say, is a good look. That's another great thing about the festival--you really can wear whatever you want. Is their any other festival in a metropolitan city where you can get away with wearing overalls, a plaid shirt, and a cowboy hat, while smoking a corncob pipe (outside of Appalachia)? Even more strange is the sighting of a possibly German couple dressed in all black are strolling the grounds on matching Segways. Did we mention the silver robot man?
Whether it's by fate or design, the Rooster Stage tends to draw some of the most fanatic of the crowds at the decidedly fan-driven Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The stage itself is situated in a small valley-like thoroughfare with two forest walls flanking either side. It's this set-up that greets an obviously pleased Marshall Crenshaw as he entertains the crowds with songs from his first album in six years, Jaggedland. The songwriter's songwriter (always a theme here at HSB) made his name in the '80s with the roosty power-pop gem of "Someday Someway" but has fostered a career of overlooked gems that the crowd eats up like it were a three foot bag of kettle corn (which is an actual item for sale).
With a view of the Rooster Stage between the trees, you can hear the crowd applauding as KPIG's Sleepy John introduces Texas troubadour Guy Clark, whose acoustic guitar immediately rings so clear that it almost sounds like a piano. The crowd fills the lawn all the way to the road; so sitting up on the forested hill to the right of the stage was the place to be. Many silver ponytails tote a myriad of microbrews and they are friendly and talkative, but they all quiet down whenever Clark sings. He opens with "Some Days You Write The Song" from his 2009 album Some Days The Song Writes You. But as with every Guy Clark performance, a warm and hushed version of "L.A. Freeway" that gets the crowd hooting and hollering as he croons like a true Texas Flatlander.
One thing that can always be counted on at Hardly Strictly is the relaxed atmosphere at the Arrow stage. As the Austin Lounge Lizards take the stage the crowd is mellow but attentive. With its long, grassy expanses and proximity to the other stages, the Arrow stage is a popular spot for families and casual listeners. While some bands may blanch at competing with Frisbee dogs and hackey sack players, the Austin Lounge Lizards are right in their element. Their humorous lyrics and blazing instrumentals make an ideal soundtrack for the early afternoon.
The Rooster stage lacks the relaxed intimacy of the Arrow stage but Boz Scaggs and the Blue Velvet band don't seem to mind or notice. Backed by a cracking band featuring Nick Lowe, Buddy Miller, Jimmy Vaughn and others, Boz exhibits his legendary vocal chops on a number of blues standards. While the Rooster stage has somewhat narrow sight lines, the sound mix is absolutely pristine. From the back rows it almost looks and sounds like the people onstage are lip-syncing. As the festival has grown in size, attendance at all stages has swelled. Yet, even with the increased crowds, the pervading spirit is one of kinship and appreciation.
Over at the main Banjo Stage, the crowd is thickening like molasses for a rare appearance of Steve Martin. But before Mr. Martin hauls out his considerable banjo chops, the Dry Branch Fire Squad knocks everyone sideways with their blazing old-time string band/bluegrass-fed hybrid. With three decades behind them, these are seasoned vets who deliver the Ralph Stanley-esque gems with (yes!) some hambone thrown in for fun.
By 3:00 PM our Indian summer has been kissed by the winds of autumn, though the crowd at the Banjo Stage is too excited to notice. Shirts are off, beach balls are flying, the skunky musk of "jazz cigarettes" fills the air and Steve Martin is on stage wearing a white suit jacket and a sharp hat. He's picking his banjo with The Steep Canyon Rangers whose members back him up with a second banjo, upright bass, mandolin and fiddle. Outside a ring of eucalyptus trees stand two longhairs in ZZ Top shirts selling iced cold beers from a garbage can. Martin's set is made up of mostly instrumental stringband tunes. He's not much of a singer, but who cares? It's Steve Martin and everybody is having a wild and crazy time. And what his voice lacks in tone, he makes up for in performance. Martin is a fast flat-picker and plays with a dexterous clawhammer style. He and the band huddle around one microphone like a kitchen jam home recording session while they perform "Jubilation Day," during which, a gust of wind blows Martin's hat off his head and he catches it to a huge round of applause. The crowd is a diverse amalgam of rockers, ravers, college students, babies, bikers, Ocean Beach surfers--it's pretty amazing to see emo kids with facial piercings break bread (OK, garlic fries) with Marin soccer moms and gray-bearded hippies. Picnicking families eat next to puppy-toting crusty punks like it's no big deal.
Martin's set is a balanced mix of old bluegrass standards, stringband traditionals and selections from his 2009 album The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo. The humorous "Late For School" boasts impressive call-and-response playing between Martin and the band. He seems to be cracking a visible smile at a diehard fan in the front row wearing a homemade t-shirt that reads, "He hates these cans!" (a loving tribute to Martin's 30 year old movie The Jerk). Martin rips into "Hide Behind A Rock," an unrecorded original that he says was inspired by Earl Scruggs, the man who inadvertently introduced and inspired Steve Martin to playing the banjo. Then as each musician is stepping up to the microphone to take on a different verse of "Orange Blossom Special," Martin steps up to the mic, pauses and sings the two words everyone is waiting for: "King Tut." The crowd goes wild with laughter and applause.
Over at the Star Stage a white haired Nick Lowe is tuning up his acoustic Martin before sliding into the sinister sentiment of "People Change" from 2007's At My Age. An attentive audience is sipping on coffee and wine and bundled-up couples are swaying arm-in-arm as he hits the chorus of a doo-wop acoustic-punk version of "Raging Eyes" from 1983's The Abominable Showman. It's 2009 and Nick Lowe is playing 1950s sounding rock 'n' roll with a folk-rocking 1970s pub rock style. And he's keeping us warm with songs that are as comforting as a pint of Guinness while the Barbary fog begins to roll in and chill the air. Then suddenly the sound system hits a SNAFU. For about 15 to 20 seconds, the PA speakers are hissing like the buzz of a cricket caught in an electric bug-zapper, but an undaunted Lowe plays through with confidence. The buzzing stops just in time for "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a song that's now 35 years old, though here it never sounded more relevant as evidenced by the standing ovation that it invokes.
"There's lots of great bluegrass being played today--and it's over there! Get ready to rock!" With that announcement, the Old 97s storm the Towers of Gold stage. One of the leading lights of the alt-country movement, the Old 97s deliver a rollicking set with onstage assistance by L.A. and U.K. punk royalty. Singer Rhett Miller is every bit the rock star as he head-bangs and windmills his way through the band's back catalog as well as a few selections from his solo albums. John Langford of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers joins them for a brash take on "I'm Going Over A Cliff" that energizes the band and audience alike. The band gives a nod to their bluegrass roots with a version of "Sweet Blue Eyed Dog" which replaces mandolins and fiddles with distorted electric guitars. They then introduce Exene Cervenka from seminal L.A. punk band X for a similarly electrified version of "I Ain't Got No Hope For You" Bassist Murry Hammond continually thanks the crowd and called Golden Gate Park, "The coolest park we've ever seen."
The Towers of Gold stage is a huge addition for the festival and helps offset the growing pains of the larger festival line-up. Also, as the Western-most stage of the festival, one must wonder how it feels for the musicians onstage to look out onto the Pacific Ocean in the distance while playing. The afternoon sun is a welcome relief for fog-stricken San Franciscans but by late afternoon the bracing ocean wind was making people who'd brought layers thankful for them.
As Ritchie Havens takes the Rooster stage, most of the crowd is more interested in finding dinner or maintaining their buzz. The soft-spoken Havens struggles at first to be heard over the talkative crowd, but a spirited version of "all Along the Watchtower" wins a wave of applause. Aided by Walter Parks on guitar, Havens gains steam and his signature festival song "Freedom" was met with cheers from the first note and reminded everyone of Havens' pivotal role in the Woodstock festival over 40 years ago.
Down the road apiece at the intimate Porch Stage, the captivating angelic voice of Claire Lynch adds some sweetness to the combination of blue sky and green grass with songs that seem to have fallen right out of the canon of romantic folk. Close your eyes and Lynch's voice comes off like a lovelorn Dolly Parton (the early years, that is) while the fiddle and mandolin combo tosses out a rhythm that dips into honky-tonk balladry and more modern-tinged rootsy pop.
San Francisco's trademark winds continue to whip and wail, as a huge crowd of attendees overtakes the Banjo Stage field where Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings are set to perform. People in layered clothing talk amongst themselves, speculating about the guest musicians that are rumored to join the duo. And this year's performance delivers in spades. Emmylou Harris joins them on a spooky rendition of "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby" from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, replete with heavenly high-lonesome harmonies. And how the hell are Gillian and Dave able to fret chords with freezing fingers in this now cold night's air? Other fan favorites emerge including a beautiful version of "Look At Miss Ohio," "Elvis Presley Blues" and a first time sung in public cover of the Grateful Dead's "China Doll." Nothing against San Francisco's sons but this may be the definitive version made possible by those haunting close androgynous harmonies where she takes the low and he takes the high. The icing on the cake rested on the closing number where The Old Crow Medicine Show joined Emmylou, Gillian and Dave on an unforgettable version of The Band's pièce de résistance, "The Weight."
As the sun sets over the Pacific, the wind begins to really pick up, sending dust and eucalyptus leaves across the park. Two beleaguered kettle corn vendors have to hang on to their pop-up tent to keep it from flying away. All this sets the Star Stage up for an inspirational set by UK folk-pop masters World Party. The inclusion of these alternative-rock legends is a daring choice on the part of the HSB bookers but the crowd's response is eager and unflappably enthusiastic. Bandleader Karl Wallinger leads fiddler David Duffy and guitarist John Campbell through a greatest-hits selection that highlights his eco-centric lyrics and Beatles-esque chord changes. Wallinger himself seems energized by the free festival spirit and dramatic weather. His between song banter is often hilarious. "I feel like I'm dreaming," he says after opening with their signature hit song "Put the Message in the Box" and then advises the crowd to "Hang onto your trousers. That's the Welsh way to survive a storm. It's getting biblical up here." However, the freezing wind and gales of sand, which lashes the stage does little to deter the freeform hula-hooping and interpretive dancing in the crowd. Despite the curfew, the band comes out for an encore of "Way Down Now" before Wallinger again thanks the crowd and announces, "This is one of the maddest fucking gigs I've ever been to!" Us too, Karl, us too.