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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2009 (Sunday, Oct 4)

By Sarah Bardeen, Tim Simmers, Mark Hedin and Jon Pruett

For blocks stretching east from the festival site, up John F. Kennedy Drive, clusters of locked bicycles crowded the bases of every lamppost and street sign in sight. More were secured to tree trunks or suspended from low-hanging branches. Their owners, perhaps knowing that the secured S.F. Bicycle Coalition parking lot had been filled to capacity the day before, resorted to their own devices as they made their way to six stages for the third and final day of the ninth Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.

The sound of fiddles and banjos drifted through the air walking down the dusty paths through Cypress trees in Golden Gate Park. The instruments blended nicely with the salty, Appalachian mountain voice of Hazel Dickens. The tiny, 74-year-old dynamo of country music, may have lost some vocal elasticity over the years, but with her band behind her, she owned the meadow‚ and in fact sounded better than ever. As usual, she was smartly turned out, her dress perfect, her hair coiled in curls. After a rollicking opening number, she sang classics like "The Aragon Mill" and "Love Me Or Leave Me Alone," and mused on and off about Hardly Strictly. "How old are we?" she asked the audience. "Nine years‚ and I still don't know why he [Warren Hellman] does this. He must get a lot out of it, because he pays a lot of money... It comes out of his generous heart, and we love him." Love him she does. She sang "The Mannington Mine Disaster" for his benefit ("It's his favorite.") and then segued into a couple of songs the Stanley Brothers made famous: "Lonesome Without You" and "Jack and May." "The Stanley Brothers do it differently," she says of "Jack and May." "We're going to stick to the old home way, the way the old folks did it back home." And then she sang "My Mama's Hands," introducing it with a nod to the man who first gave her confidence in her songwriting. "I just lost one of my best friends. On his death bed, he asked me if I would sing "Mama's Hands" for him now and then. I said I would do it forever -- he was that kind of friend. His name was Mike Seeger." At the end of her set, the crowd leapt to its feet, offering a sustained standing ovation to one of the women who inspired the creation of what one announcer has called "Warren-stock."

Dickens' departure gave way to 86-years-young guitarist and singer Arthel "Doc" Watson, the next act in the succession of the old guard of what could be called "Strictly Bluegrass" performers. Settling in after being led to the stage by co-billed sideman David Holt, Doc opened his set with "Way Downtown," flatpicking while Holt played a banjo. Holt, acting as something of an emcee for the set, prompted Watson to recount how their next song, "Shady Grove," was one his father-in-law would play on the fiddle when Doc was courting his future wife, Rosalee, to whom he's been married 64 years.

Octogenarian Earl Scruggs, who wrote the book - literally - on playing three-finger-style banjo, held forth next. His set included classics such as the tuner-twisting "Earl's Breakdown," "Foggy Mountain Special" and a little guitar playing, the crowd stood and roared as he brought festival sponsor Hellman, brandishing his own banjo, onstage to join him in a rowdy version of "Soldier's Joy," a Civil War-era ode to morphine.

A few more steps down the dirt trails and the chime of a different era filtered through. It was legendary Memphis soul man Booker T. Jones massaging the keyboard on his classic song "Green Onions."

"I want you to hear a song I worked on in Memphis when I was 17 years old," said Jones, playing the trademark raunchy organ licks he honed years ago with his band Booker T. and the MGs. It was barely noon, and there was already a sea of people enjoying the 9th Annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival on the lawn at Speedway Meadows. Jones' funky organ soared out to a wide range of early-bird festival goers. Some with gray hair and wrinkles, others with fresh faces and hula-hoops swinging around their waists. Playing with the Drive-by Truckers on the Arrow Stage, Jones grabbed a guitar and led the band on "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," drawing a lusty roar from the crowd with the lyrics: "Left my home in Georgia, headin' for the Frisco Bay."

The festival that knows no musical boundaries was already full of dogs, children, gypsies, hippies, hillbillies, punks, and regular folks - and they were all getting along just fine. Frisbees flew through the air, and balloons bounced from one person to another on the patchwork quilt of blankets, tarps and grass. The richness of the festival's offerings inevitably forces attendees into some hard choices. Betty Doyle, of Belmont, making her way between stages, reflected on how the festival has grown since she first attended "in the early years." It's an embarrassment of riches, but there's no complaining here: "Love it, love it," she enthused.

Another elder statesman, Ralph Stanley, who first attained fame as one half of the Stanley Brothers, was next back on the Banjo stage, mostly in the role of singer. Early on, Stanley delivered his Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? movie trademark, "Oh Death." He was joined by representatives of two succeeding generations of Stanleys, plus, on the lion's share of the banjo playing, Steve Sparkman, whose hard-driving, solid style, said Steve Breen, who plays a bit himself, "really suits Ralph's music." Stanley gave a short demonstration of his own banjo work as the set drew to a close.

Del McCoury then lead his band through offerings from its most recent recording, the socially poignant Moneyland, including its title track and the sardonic "40 Acres and a Fool." McCoury, leading a tight band sharply dressed in black suits that clustered around the microphone and took turns leaning in to sing, seemed to be enjoying himself plenty as he took requests from the crowd. One fan had gone to the trouble to make a poster successfully requesting Richard Thompson's "52 Vincent Black Lightning," the narrative of red-haired Molly and her outlaw biker boyfriend James, which has become a regular highlight of the bouffanted McCoury's sets. "Dark Hollow," "Thanks A Lot" some gospel numbers and Charlie Poole's "White House Blues" rounded out the performance.

The crowds continued to pour in from all over. "What an array of talent," said Cameron McKenzie, who'd come up from Santa Cruz with a friend, an hour-and-a-half's drive. "Too good to be missed," he said, even if it took them another 90 minutes to find parking.

Walking through the pungent eucalyptus trees to the Star Stage, the Irish brogues of the Chieftains floated into the woods. The band ended up throwing down one of the great unsung sets of the day. They had just 45 short minutes, and they made every one count. The set started gently - a bodhran drum, the tin whistle, the high keening of uillean pipes. Long-legged dancers appeared, clicking out the old-school, pre-Riverdance rhythms before a surprisingly rapt audience. Then Paddy Maloney sang "Parting Glass" in the a cappella sean-nos style, and the audience was transported. But things didn't stay so solemn. This is the Chieftains, after all: they know their audience and they love a collaboration. A lambeg drum appeared onstage, and a fleet of bagpipers. The group swung into a medley of "Wabash Cannonball" and "Cotton-Eyed Joe," quoting the Stones' "Satisfaction" (delight!) and ending with the tongue-twisting "Rocky Road to Dublin." The crowd is entranced. Los Cenzontles, Tim O'Brien, some local dancers appear‚ the stage gets more and more crowded as the group traces the family tree that connects Irish folk and American bluegrass, detouring to Mexico and giving us a taste of their just-recorded album San Francisco. (Here's a teaser: Ry Cooder produces, Linda Ronstadt sings, Liam Neeson narrates. Get thee to a website to pre-order.) The sound quality suffered - there was some feedback, and it didn't pick up Los Centzontles' tap dancers. But the epic finale made up for it - every collaborator returned to the stage and the group swung through a million permutations, from "Sweet Georgia Brown" to "I'll Tell Me Ma," all stitched together with hard-rocking Irish trad. The crowd was on its feet; we witnessed one man bouncing in time to the harp solo. Dancer John Polanski - so stunning with the footwork - hopped on the fiddle and played a mean solo. And that was it, the spirit of the festival: spontaneous, passionate collaboration, the walls of traditional music opening to encompass a world of sounds. They returned for an encore - "Andreu," recorded in 1986 - and left quite a few converts to Celtic folk walking away from the Star Stage that day.

"It's all so earthy here," said festivalgoer Alexandra Ewem, who just moved to Berkeley from Paris and was attending her first Hardly Strictly festival. "Everybody seems really happy and calm. I sense a lot of nostalgia, and why not? A lot of these performers are the originals."

Others in the crowd were equally impressed by the rich offering of music and song.

"You can really feel the love," said Khalila Friedman of Santa Rosa, also at her first Hardly Strictly. "This is so much about going back to the roots, and I love hearing roots and bluegrass in nature. It seems like it's the way it's supposed to be."

The silky sounds of singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell's roots music filtered through the air from the Arrow Stage while down the road at the Towers of Gold Stage Allen Toussaint showed why he's considered one of the nation's musical treasures. The Crescent City crew quickly got funky, dripped with soul, and rocked the meadow with an extra measure of pure joy and humanity.

"We feel a kindred spirit to you all," Toussaint said. "When we were in times of trouble, San Francisco helped us out." Looking sharp in a black suit and sequined tie as he sat at the black lacquered Steinway grand, Toussaint had the crowd on its feet throughout his appearance, which included a batch of his compositions made popular by others, such as "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" (Robert Palmer), "Get Out of My Life Woman" (Lee Dorsey, Butterfield Blues Band), "Mother-In-Law" (Ernie K-Doe), "Fortune Teller" (Rolling Stones), "Working in a Coal Mine" (Lee Dorsey, Devo), "Southern Nights" (Glen Campbell), plus Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" and a splendid reading of the late Steve Goodman's hit for Arlo Guthrie, "City of New Orleans." Toussaint repeatedly commented on the glories of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco, and gave his talented New Orleans sidemen, particularly on sax and guitar, plenty of room to show off their considerable skills, besides doing some rousing work himself on the 88s. In keeping with the high-spirited tenor of the set, his "A Certain Girl" made two appearances in the course of events.

Another walk through the trees was all it took to go from the flavor of New Orleans to some deep Latin beats. Malo, one of the longest-standing Latin rock bands in the world, played its hit "Suavecito," and had the ladies dancing on the grass in the late afternoon. Fronted by Jorge Santana, the brother of Carlos, the band's sensual conga drums heated up the crowd.

"I love the convergence of the old and new here," said Silverius Sage, a wandering minstrel who quietly played the chord changes on his guitar as Marianne Faithful created a festival highlight with her hauntingly beautiful voice. Singing on the Towers of Gold Stage, Faithful looked luminescent. She waved to her adoring fans, while dishing up one English rock gem after another. Sassy and graceful at the same time, she stood way up front on stage. That added to the intimacy of her performance, and gave people a much-appreciated closer look at the fabled star. Still a blond bombshell, her velvety voice flowed like honey on "Sister Morphine," which she co-wrote with Jagger/Richards. Fans greeted her with warm rounds of applause on "As Tears Go By" and other songs. She seemed truly moved by the adoration and played two encore songs as the sun slipped below the tree tops.

As they did all day long, people rambled in waves from stage to stage to catch their favorite acts "You've got such a musical choice here," said Jeremy Mela of San Francisco, who lives 10 blocks from the event. "You can bring in your stuff and set up camp, and then come and go. It makes it a real festival." Mela had just seen Mavis Staples belt out her swampy, Louisiana freedom songs, and raved about her soulful version of the Band song "The Weight." He heaped further praise on the sparse, but emotional guitar work on the song. Indeed, Mavis Staples was treating a crowd that had the gully packed clear to the back through a set that brought back the passions of the '60s civil rights movement, from the perspective of one who was on its front lines, with memories of Martin Luther King, her father Pops Staples, and '70s stardom. Along the way she played some of the most passionate, influential songs to come out of the realm of gospel.

Neko Case is, pardon the pun, another case entirely. Her impressionistic songs sometimes hardly count as songs - they're moments caught in a few chords, a mysterious gaggle of images that scarcely alight before they're gone. But the flame-haired Ms. Case doesn't bring that seriousness to her stage presence. As atmospheric as her songs are, she spends her between-song chatter poking fun at herself and the world -- and she seems to have a thing for animals. "Thank you for bringing your dogs," she told the crowd Star Stage on Sunday, who responded by obligingly holding up their poodles and pugs for her inspection. (Later she introduced "Tiger on a Chain": "This one is for the tigers. Represent. Represent.") She then unleashed a cascade of great songs - "Things That Scare Me," "Maybe Sparrow," "Hold On, Hold On." The audience is swooning, steeped in beer and the late afternoon sun. "Your future husband's right here," shouts a guy in front of me. "This song is about breaking up with the state of Washington," Case says at one point, "So we could go out with San Francisco tonight." And later she pokes fun at Prop 8 before covering Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me": "This is a sad song. Yes, it is. Hold each other. Legally." The growing power of her songbook is evident as she plays "That Teenage Feeling" and "This Tornado Loves You." As they prepare to wrap up, Case thanks the crowd for having her. "This is the greatest festival ever," she says, in one of her less-ironic moment. They close with "The Train From Kansas City" by the Shangri-Las, an excellent high note (and hook) to end on.

As darkness set in, many folks headed for the Rooster Stage's final act, the Old Crow Medicine Show. Green and yellow balloons bounced through the air as Old Crow tore it up with its rowdy, backwoods medicine show. It resembled a barn dance down in the holler. The group mixed banjos, harmonicas, guitar and fiddle with a devil-may-care attitude. The youthful crowd roared its approval, often screaming upon hearing the name of the next song. The performance blended back-porch comedy and hard rocking bluegrass into quite a gumbo stew. It was tough to believe the festival was ending with the energy level rising so much on this stage. But Old Crow's primitive rhythm and raw melodies had them dancing in the dark.

Which dovetails nicely into another act rounding up day three - Amadou and Mariam. A sizeable crowd stayed late to watch Mali's magic couple (and cutest blind duo on the planet). But because Neko Case had started late, A&M got a late start. As we waited, the sun sagged in the sky. People shouted for the show to begin at every break between songs, but it didn't. The minutes clicked away. The wind kicked up, then died down. The sun sank below the horizon. Still people hung on, lining the hillsides, unwilling to let this weekend of incredible music end. Who could blame them? As the clock ticked, people began making jokes about the couple losing its way to the stage. Bad taste, but it showed the frustration. A clapping campaign began. Finally, the sun long gone, revelers bundled up in the dark, A&M appear onstage and launch into "Welcome to Mali." It takes some acts several songs to warm up, but A&M came alive on the second song, finding a sort of African disco groove that connected immediately with the crowd. Back behind the sardines packed close to the stage, space had opened up and dancers felt free to twirl and shimmy. Onstage, Amadou made a valiant effort to use his limited English, saying like clockwork: "And the next song we're going to play is called..." and "Do you feel all RIGHT?" before lapsing into French. The crowd certainly did feel all right, going mad for the Manu Chao-produced nugget "Dimanche a Bamako." The day of booze (and other substances) has left people really silly, and they shed layers and start doing ballet to "M'bife." When did A&M become world music's premier dance band? Suddenly HSB feels like it's become a rave. Amadou breaks into Bambara in his between-song chatter, and nobody minds. They cheer whatever it was he said, and go mad to the "soul fire" chant in "La Realite." The crowd is fully with the group when they finally call it a day at 8:20. The moon is full - and so bright it's casting shadows -- as we walk back to our cars, bus stops, tramlines. And with that, the ninth Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was truly in the books.

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