From showcasing nine eclectic bands on two stages over the course of six hours back in 2000, San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival has grown into an event that now stretches over three full days on six stages and features some of the very biggest names in popular music. This year, well more than half a million people - 600,000 was the official estimate - made it out to the western end of Golden Gate Park for the party.
And wouldn't you know it, just as the biggest and best festival yet of the 10 so far was almost over, Sharon Jones and her Brooklynite gang of Dap-King henchmen and women showed up at the Rooster Stage on Sunday evening and destroyed the place.
Long before that, before most attendees even had their first cup of coffee, the rollicking brass of the March Fourth Marching Band could be heard blowing out of the Porch Stage, but the day generally started calmly enough, with Peter Rowan singing gospel at the Banjo Stage. He and the band gathered around the microphone to croon hallelujahs to the sleepy, slow-moving audience, an odd mix of early risers, sipping wine and holding space for friends who'll appear later; a daunting number of dreadlocked hippies; a shirtless man break-dancing with a cross gleaming on his chest; women swaying their hips and shimmying.
Onstage, Rowan's in a reflective mood. He and his newly-minted bluegrass quartet including local hotshots Jody Stecher on mandolin and Keith Little on banjo deliver the haunting "The Raven" off Rowan's latest release, followed by a blues about insomnia - Rowan's worn a lot of hats in his career, and this set gently reminds us of that. (Today, the hat is a gray felt cowboy style, and Rowan's looking sharp in a blue suit.) The bluegrass legacy really becomes clear though, when Rowan reminisces about seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time back in 1965 when he was traveling with Bill Monroe. "Bill turned to me and said, `Pete Rowan, listen to this and don't you forget it.' ... And we wrote this song for you." He rolls into "The Walls of Time." The sun makes a brief appearance, and a sea of faces turn upward. Then it's back to gospel, with Carter Stanley's beautiful "Let Me Walk, Lord, By Your Side."
The set continues in this vein, with the gorgeous "First Whippoorwill," his iconic composition "Panama Red," which transforms into "Bo Diddley" with new lyrics about playing bluegrass in Golden Gate Park till the sun goes down, "Going down to Golden Gate Park, I'm pickin' that bluegrass till it's dark," then a segue back into "Panama Red."
Although the band mostly concentrated on the new album, "Not Fade Away" was in there too, and the set rounded off with "Midnight Moonlight," another classic off the "Old and in the Way" album Rowan recorded in the '70s with Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and John Kahn. By this time, the meadow had filled in and people were on their feet, giving this morning set a standing ovation. The emcee summed up the crowd's feelings pretty succinctly: "Nobody needs to feel guilty about missing church this morning."
Up Speedway Meadow just after noon, Moonalice returned to the Arrow Stage for a fifth consecutive year. Their Grateful Dead-like improvisational psychedelic country jams included a hypnotic cover of the Canned Heat classic, "On the Road Again." Moonalice embraced the spirit of the free festival with gifts for the audience: two different, custom-printed posters commemorating the event. Eager fans could be seen bartering for both designs and carrying carefully rolled posters throughout the day.
Moonalice's groove wasn't lost on one woman twirling in a wide skirt of patchwork colors with one green parrot on her shoulder and another perched on her hand. If that wasn't enough of a head turner, a roving salesman walked by, advertising the sushi he was offering for sale from his backpack with a display of his wares on a paper plate. A lot of folks thought it was a little early for that. Vocalist Barry Sless summed up everyone's feelings at the end of Moonalice's set with the proclamation, "Warren Hellman is a god!" As the fog slowly began to burn off and Railroad Earth began to tune up, he got no argument from the crowd.
Back on the Banjo Stage, while crowds continued filtering in from the various bus lines or hard-won parking spots, Hazel Dickens played a beautiful set sung in her powerful, gutsy voice. Over the years, she's often regaled the crowd with wry comments about the contrast between Hellman's largess and the lives of struggle so many of her friends, associates and song subjects have led. But on this day, her 10th appearance at Hardly Strictly, there was no teasing. She recounted expressing some reluctance at making the journey this year, that she'd been unsure she could deal with another airport scene. The solution? Hellman, she said, chartered her a private plane.
Which is not to say Dickens has abdicated her role as a strident voice on behalf of the underclasses. Toward the end of the set, for instance, came these lyrics: "We all know our pockets been picked clean, so the rich can have their all-American dream."
San Francisco's notorious fog bank laid heavily on the park, making the weather overcast and blustery but not uncomfortably cold. But the sun broke through as Dickens continued with her rough-edged mountain music, delivered, as always, with urgency and a power that belies her diminutive stature. Her rendition of "I've Been All Around This World" sounded like it was straight from the backwoods in Appalachia. But she trumped herself with some terrific yodeling on her own "Working Girl Blues," which carried a wonderful honky tonk flavor (don't tell her that!) and lyrics that told the truth about overworked and underpaid women.
She sang "Heart's Own Love," written by her "favorite guitarist," Tim Stafford, who would be back later with Doc Watson, "Dark Hollow," her own "A Few Old Memories" - about which, she said, she was "not really sure where it came from," but "in the songwriting game, you don't worry too much about that."
"Thank you, Mr. Hellman, for 10 great years," said the warm and down-home Dickens, often billed as the heart of the festival, given her status as one of Hellman's favorite acts and an inspiration for putting on the festival in the first place. She's played every one and gets center stage every year.
Another Hellman favorite, local act Heidi Clare and AtaGallop, were playing at the Porch Stage right about then. It turns out that Hellman and Clare share a love of a "sport" called Ride and Tie, which involves two horses, two people, a footrace and God knows what else. Hellman popped onstage about two-thirds of the way through the set to join the carefully quiet band on banjo for "The Cherry Blossom Waltz." He looked fit and rested, and happy to be playing with Clare, a little dynamo of a fiddler who changed her shoes and tapped for the crowd before finishing with "We Believe In Happy Endings" - a tribute to another festival patron saint, Emmylou Harris.
Back at the Arrow Stage, Railroad Earth, meanwhile, sounded like it was putting on an electric hoedown with a dose of Bob Dylan. That self-proclaimed "country eastern" band - an acoustic sextet first heard at HSB in 2007 - laid down a trotting, near galloping sound that was working fine for a beret-toting painter with a paintbrush in his fist. He had set up an easel in the middle of the crowd and was working on a colorful canvas the size of a small dinner table.
Over at the Rooster Stage, the Indigo Girls, tastefully backed by a double bass, Hammond organ, fiddle and accordion, showed their country roots. Their finely tuned vocal harmonies shone on the likes of "Gone Again" and hits such as "Galileo." The relatively narrow gulley, with the stage positioned at one end, had a standing-room-only audience backed up all the way to JFK Drive, but even far back, people listened intently and sang along.
At the Porch Stage, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer made a bit of history: It was the sisters' first time playing together. The two share an intense personal history: Their father shot and killed their mother and then himself when they were 17 and 14, respectively. Not surprisingly, Lynne has struggled with addiction over the years, but both songwriters are critics' favorites who've never found a comfortable home on country or mainstream radio.
Before they took the stage, the emcee updated the crowd on the Giants game - it was scoreless at the time - though a couple in the crowd shouted "Don't tell us!" (The Giants were playing across town, in the final game of the regular season, with a playoff berth at stake.) Nearby, Melissa Nemer nursed the two-week old Ayla Einhorn. The baby may have been impossibly small, but Nemer, a San Franciscan, wouldn't miss the festival for anything. "If there's an event this great, you find a way to go," she laughed, while her son, Samson, clambered over dad Josh Einhorn, who nodded in agreement, saying of Samson, "This is his fourth year, even though he's only 3."
Moorer and Lynne opened with a cute rendition of the 1927 standard "Side By Side," but they soon delved into their shared history, singing a pair of songs about their home state, Moorer's "Alabama Song" and Lynne's beautiful, compelling "Where I'm From." Moorer provided expert harmonies on that song and "Your Lies," and told the audience that she spent many years singing with her sister before she had her own thing going on. "Sometimes people ask me, 'How did you learn to sing?' And I always say" - here Moorer's voice broke, and she paused for what felt like a long time - "from my sis." She then sang the lovely "Soft Place To Fall," as festival-goers entering the park paused to take stock of the surprising star power at this tiny stage.
Later, Moorer ribbed her sister about the sparkly jacket she was wearing. Moorer had made it ("I was pregnant; I didn't even have a BeDazzler - I did it with pliers!") and loaned it to Lynne, who has yet to return it. Then Moorer let it slip that the baby she had last year was present: "John Henry's backstage with Daddy." Of course, "Daddy" is a fellow named Steve Earle, a name perhaps already known to Hardly Strictly regulars.
The sisters sang a few more songs, promised they'd be recording an album together in 2011 and closed with a brief return to "Side By Side." They drew an ovation from the crowd, and, plainly pleased, affectionately told the audience: "We'll always remember this as our very first sissy show."
On the way back to the festival's other stages, by Lloyd Lake, a man was overheard to say, "This is Duck Watson, across the road from Doc Watson." Puns know no boundaries, apparently.
By 2 p.m., the fog had burned off to shine on a sort of jam-band harmonic convergence with Railroad Earth roaring on the Arrow Stage and Umphrey's McGee on the Star Stage. Umphrey's, a Chicago-based band, displayed the kind of unclassifiable virtuosity that has become a staple of Hardly Strictly. If anything, the tightly synchronized guitar leads of Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger sound like heavy metal thinly disguised as bluegrass. Umphrey's even acknowledged their metal roots with a brief, instrumental portion of Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge" at the very end of their set. As they blazed with mind-boggling precision, the sun broke through the fog and the crowd responded with cheers and dancing. Near the back of the throng, hippies could be seen engaging in the 3 Hs: hula hoops, hackey sacks and hemp. The Star Stage always has a slight air of anarchy about it as the wildest fans can usually be found there.
While they wound down, songwriting icon Randy Newman was just getting started at the Towers of Gold Stage directly behind them.
One of the benefits of the two stages' close proximity is that if you have a good spot for one, you can usually hear perfectly what's going on at the other as they alternate between sets. If you don't mind watching the back of the band, you still get to hear the music and keep your place for the next artist at your stage without having to move. This can be handy when the talent is alternating, for instance, between Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Mondo Cane and Patti Smith.
An informal survey of attendees showed Newman, one of America's most clever and prolific songwriters, was a hotly anticipated guest. He did not disappoint. Lacing his poignant piano ballads with self-deprecating wit, he regaled the crowd with stories about raising his four children and his many years in the music business.
Few artists can pull off Newman's kind of nonchalant charm: He sat at a huge black grand piano and delivered his cutting and sarcastically humorous - not to mention romantic - original songs, introducing one as being about the rigors of daycare orientation mixed with the failure of Marxism.
He had his fans singing back-up vocals to the tongue-in-cheek song "I'm Dead, but I Don't Know It." At times he hushed the crowd with his quieter lyrics, but got people roaring again on his foreign policy song, "Political Science" ("They all hate us anyhow, let's drop the big one now") and classics like "Short People," "I Love L.A.," a lively "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and, from the "Toy Story" soundtrack, "You've Got a Friend in Me." Giants fans in commemorative Jerry Garcia Day T-shirts could be seen nervously checking the score on their iPhones.
Newman's huge personality won over the crowd, even the two girls who were at first disappointed after realizing that they'd confused him with new-wave pioneer Gary Numan.
Newman certainly doesn't lack for attitude and generated plenty of laughs. A couple of other big crowd pleasers included "Sail Away" and "It's Great to Be an American." Before he launched into "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," off his first, eponymous 1968 album, he noted, "this is why the boys didn't come home from Vietnam."
The crowd seemed overjoyed by Newman's Hardly Strictly debut, and gave him a warm and rowdy sendoff. "I've been coming here since Dolly Parton was here (2005), and I've seen some incredible music," said Michael Flanagan of San Francisco as Newman left the stage. "It's turned me on to a lot of music I would never have known. You get stopped by a stage unexpectedly because you want to figure out who it is."
Another huge aspect of the Towers of Gold Stage was the food available from the vendors. If a foot-long corn dog wasn't enough, Willie Bird offered whole turkey drumsticks that must have weighed 5 pounds each. Gnawing on one, a dreadlocked traveler dressed in a fur vest and boots gave the impression that he'd stumbled out of an episode of the "Flintstones."
Back at the Banjo Stage, Earl Scruggs was showcasing something much much closer to genuine bluegrass, strictly speaking. The North Carolina native first took up the banjo at age 4 - that's four-score-and-some years ago, if you're counting, and put the three-finger style of right-hand picking on the map during his 1940s stint in Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. In fact, that manner of playing has come to be known as "Scruggs style." Purists might object to his son Gary's electric bass, or the presence of a drummer - John Gardner - or even Randy Scruggs' twanging on the Telecaster (electric!) guitar, but there's no denying that without Scruggs' work, there's be a lot less bluegrass to argue about in this world.
Joined by John Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, Robert Ickes on Dobro and Hoot Hester on fiddle, the band lit into "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms," "Someday We'll Meet Again, Sweetheart," "Earl's Breakdown," "You Ain't Going Nowhere" - with Gary Scruggs' singing sounding awfully familiar from their old pals the Byrds' version of the Dylan song - "Streamline Cannonball" - the set highlight, at least from the perspective of some fans there that day - "In the Pines," a version of "Soldier's Joy" that included Hellman sitting in on banjo next to the master, "Doin' My Time," "Sitting on Top of the World," then Scruggs' 1949 hit with guitarist Lester Flatt after the two left the Blue Grass Boys, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which on this day incited perhaps the world's most multi-generational mosh pit ever, followed by "Orange Blossom Special," "Step It Up and Go," and, finally, the 1962 "Beverly Hillbillies" theme song that's surely brought some material comforts into the Scruggs household over the years, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."
"Earl Scruggs and Friends!" the emcee shouted as the band left the stage. "Nice folks!"
As always, patrons of this festival have to make tough choices. Up the hill and down the holler a little to the east at the Rooster Stage, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women kicked things off with a brooding country song. Alvin took the time with his big baritone voice to welcome the crowd and say: "This is the greatest festival ever. Trust me, I know, I've been around the world."
The fourth-generation Californian with the fast hand on guitar heated up the stage with his song "California's Burning," about one of those notorious Southern California wildfires where the "fire don't care whether you're rich or poor."
"There's trouble in the promised land," the onetime Blaster sang. "Pack up your bags and get out while you can."
The exodus of people from the Towers of Gold Stage area after Newman's set caused a pedestrian gridlock, but really, who can complain about being stuck in a crowd while being serenaded by Elvis Costello? Previous Costello sightings at Hardly Strictly included him sitting in with T-Bone Burnett and Jenny & Johnny. His own band, the Sugarcanes, on this day featured Tex-Mex troubadour Jim Lauderdale on guitar and Dobro star Jerry Douglas.
They opened with a Memphis-flavored version of his namesake Elvis Presley's famed "Mystery Train" and followed that with a Newman song, "I Miss You," which he explained Newman wrote for his first wife while married to his second wife.
Costello's newest project, "National Ransom," follows the fortunes of a fictional Jimmie Rodgers imitator in 1930s England and features a distinctly old-timey vibe. Costello's crowd-pleasing set alternated songs off "Ransom" with loping, countrified versions of his hits, like "Red Shoes." The first of these was "Blame It On Jane," but the trick really gelled with "New Amsterdam." Midway through, the band galloped into the Beatles' "Hide Your Love Away," and soon Costello had the slightly unruly crowd singing along before he slipped back into "Amsterdam."
The meadow was saturated with people, many of whom were only half paying attention as he moved into "Brilliant Mistake" and took a beautiful, noisy squeal of a solo on the following song. In such an environment, even the best performers can lose a crowd to socializing, but the delightful "A Slow Drag With Josephine" off "National Ransom" recaptured the crowd - no small feat, given that most people had never heard it before.
With the sun finally out, the wacky 'baccy burning and blissed-out hippies young and old in attendance - among them Woodstock emcee and local luminary Wavy Gravy seated at stage left - audience member Jason Blantz leaned over to confide, "If you want to please a crowd in Golden Gate Park, play the Grateful Dead." Costello must've heard, as the band then produced "Friend of the Devil." The following "Sulfur To Sugarcane" (co-written with T-Bone Burnett) felt right at home in the mix, a sweet bluesy jaunt played at double-speed. This was Costello's chance to pay homage to his influences, and so he did, covering Chuck Berry's "Don't Lie To Me" and the Rolling Stones' "Happy" for an encore.
Rosanne Cash followed Alvin and gang onto the Rooster Stage, her deep voice carrying beautifully, even to those perched high up on the hill. Dressed in black, like her father before her, she sang a lovely version of Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" that those two immortals recorded together in the '60s on Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album. It really quieted the crowd. Though she's carved out her own identity as a great singer and songwriter in her own right, there's no mistaking the legacy of the Cash and Carter family bloodlines. They can be heard in her rich, low voice and that penchant for singing about the truth. Chelsea Crowell, her daughter with Rodney Crowell, joined mom for some harmonizing.
With her flowing, dark red hair and black spiked-heel shoes, she moved across the stage with grace. Her band, which rocked hard when it wasn't simply playing tasty country music, performed masterfully behind her, always highlighting her savory vocals.
Back at the Banjo Stage, the procession of true bluegrass stars continued with his eminence Doc Watson. The North Carolina guitarist extraordinaire was joined by the multitalented David Holt, his sidekick for some years now in the aftermath of the tragic death of Merle Watson in a farming accident back in the '80s. Doc annually hosts an East Coast festival that in some ways rivals Hellman's shindig, Merlefest, named in honor of his son, who for years made memorable concert appearances and recordings with his Dad, and whose legacy survives him.
Doc opened up with "Way Downtown," followed by an instrumental, "Whiskey Before Breakfast," then a second song memorializing a stint behind bars, this one a little less innocent, the murder ballad "Little Sadie." "Roll on Buddy," Elizabeth Cotton's "Freight Train," the flat-picking showcase "Black Mountain Rag" and "Solid Gone" came next.
By way of introducing the Delmore Brothers song "Big River Blues," Doc told the audience how, when he was a child growing up in the '30s, his family at one point obtained a wind-up Victrola record player and a stack of 78 r.p.m. records of diverse styles. "When they brought that thing in the house, I thought they had brought in the king's treasure!" he recalled. It widened his musical horizons to include the likes of (Mississippi) John Hurt, Al Jolson, Fiddling John Carson, and many more, some of whose songs he still performs to this day.
By way of illustration, Jolson's "Mississippi Delta Blues" and Carson's "Little Log Cabin in the Lane" and Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas" came next, the latter featuring an appearance by Merle's son Richard on guitar. "River of Jordan," Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues" and the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side" rounded out the impeccable set of bluegrass standards.
Late in Watson's show, prophetically, a fan made her way toward the front of the audience sporting a Giants jersey featuring the number 28, that of star rookie catcher Buster Posey, who, it turned out a little later, had just hit an eighth-inning home run to ice a Giants victory and propel the team into the postseason. The team's battle and score updates were a constant topic of conversation both on and off stage all afternoon.
To the east at the Porch Stage, Toronto-based folk singer Basia Bulat gave an exuberant performance that showcased her angelic voice. This young multi-instrumentalist played guitar, ukulele and autoharp. "It's not a bluegrass festival without an autoharp," she said. The Porch Stage is usually criminally overlooked but today the audience was near capacity, possibly owing to the introduction of the new cupcake stand set up next to the coffee vendor.
At the Towers of Gold Stage, Patti Smith had grander things in mind than major league baseball as, with her trademark messianic intensity, she exhorted the audience to stand up for its rights and honor its own creativity. Lenny Kaye's mercurial guitar playing provided a rich, emotional foil to her impassioned vocals.
The first lady of punk, if you will, lives in the nether-region where songwriters, poets, mystics and your crazy old aunt mix. She's got more than a pinch of '60s-era idealism, but she's also still the devil-may-care punk chick, and the massive crowd assembled to see her was ready to go wherever she led.
And she led in a mystical direction. First it was the incantatory "Dancing Barefoot," a neo-Sufi anthem which she broke out of long enough to kneel down and wave at the crowd with a huge grin on her face. A fever seemed to come over people as they responded to her. Then the song was over and she was talking about poetry: in this case, joining her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye at Litquake the night before to honor Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "So here's a song from William Blake to honor poets, who give us the blood through the word." She gave a flabby rendition of "My Blakean Year," and so the pattern for the set was established: amazing moments followed by some - but not many - meandering distractions. She played an amazing version of "Ghost Dance" from her 1979 album "Easter" - though many in the crowd seemed not to know the song - followed by a venomous cover of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire" that included her own love poetry playing off the song's mention of diamonds and tiaras. "You measure my love ... in gold, in rubies piled high ... My love is the simple love of a bird, of a humble fox ..." and a repeated refrain of "I loved your eyes."
When she spit on the stage during the song, two made-up girls in their mid-20s swooned.
The Towers of Gold Stage may, in fact, have drawn the biggest crowd of all six at the festival. While the field itself may approximate that in front of the Banjo Stage in size, here there were no coolers or picnic blankets in sight. Instead, the crowd was packed in, standing shoulder to shoulder.
The homage to poetry continued, with Smith dedicating "Beneath the Southern Cross" to the late Jim Carroll ("probably the most important poet of my generation"). The low-key song sent Patti spinning again, and she went into inspirational mode: "Rise up, people, all of you have poetry in your blood. Your life - no matter how fucked up - is beautiful ... be happy!"
At this point, you could feel the crowd trying to decide if she's a badass, a saint or both. Either way, they're moved by whatever she says. Next up: a history lesson. "Today is the anniversary of the passing of St. Francis of Assisi," she says, and proceeds to read his prayer, which she finds inspirational "whatever your belief system is. I think in these times, when our environment is suffering, we should look into the words of this simple and humble man ... If not, there's always Metallica." The audience laughs. "It's all right: I have their T-shirt," she jokes.
"Keep your spirit strong!" she urged the crowd, and dedicated a song "to remember Rachel Corrie and other activists who rise up against social injustice." She also cited Marin County native John Walker Lindh, now 28, "a scapegoat of the Bush administration, who was doing nothing but searching, which is an American ideal."
As she sings "I Was a Vision" (in "Wing"), a woman in the crowd shrieks, "You still are!" From here on out, the hits come fast: "Because The Night," an ecstatic and fierce reading of "Pissing In a River" and her favorite anthem "People Have The Power."
"Don't forget what your city represents," she shouted, "Freedom, love, independence, rebellion! It's never too late!"
As she launched into "Gloria," the entire audience joined in on the opening line: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." Smith cracked, "I think they were Bill Graham's." As the show draws to a close she shouted more advice: "Live your life. Be happy. Work hard. Love one another." The crowd kept screaming for her, even as the recorded music came on. "That was sweet," one guy said.
On the Rooster Stage, a dapper Nick Lowe was just getting started, regaling the crowd with "Cruel to Be Kind," "I Knew the Bride" and other songs and stories from his 30-plus years as a U.K. rock icon. Though the fog had rolled back in and the sun was disappearing over the ocean, the sense in the air was that the festival was just starting to heat up. Today, the Giants won, San Francisco won, Warren Hellman won and the spirit of free music certainly won. As the exit banners by the Porch Stage proclaim, "See you next year!"
But even in the late afternoon, crowds were still streaming into the park hoping to catch a portion of the embarrassment of riches that the closing night promised. The expanding crowd got bogged down by the Arrow Stage, prompting an angry hippie to yell, "I need some peanut butter to go with this jam!" In retrospect, he may have been referring to the music of Yonder Mountain String Band who started their set promptly at 4:20.
Probably the most idiosyncratic booking of the entire festival was the final act on Sunday's Star Stage: Mike Patton's Mondo Cane. Patton is best known for his work in bands like Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, among others, but his solo excursions in the last decade-plus have led him in experimental directions: all-vocal industrial albums and noise freakouts have become the norm for this guy. So it was with great delight and confusion that the world welcomed his new project, Mondo Cane, earlier this year. Named for the classic Italian documentary that inspired imitators like the "Faces of Death" series, Mondo Cane features Patton singing '50s and '60s Italian pop (in Italian) with an orchestra. Patton arrived onstage with his all-Italian orchestra, as well as a guitarist, bassist, keyboards, a chorus ... and Bay Area stalwart Scott Amendola on drums.
In the hour between Costello and Mondo Cane, the crowd at the Star Stage had completely changed: Families and marijuana cigarettes had been replaced by single men and tobacco. One guy confessed he was hoping Patton would ditch the Italian pop and get a mosh pit going, and many in the compact but enthusiastic crowd seemed to feel the same. But Patton, looking rather Italian with his slicked-back hair, black suit and purple shirt, disappointed in this regard: He saved all his aggressive energy for the remarkable songs, which had enough dynamism and frenetic energy to channel and contain his sometimes pedal-to-the-floor vocal style. On a song like "20 KM Al Giorno," Patton's manic presence transformed the piece into something almost prog in its execution. "Urlo Negro" veered between '50s rock and utter mayhem; if Patton's affection for the orchestra wasn't so clear, you'd think he was terrorizing them. By the time the group played "Deep Deep Down," it became clear Patton's fans would follow him anywhere, even into Italian nostalgia. Patton's an immensely talented vocalist, and he gave those songs the crooning they deserved; even when he veered into cartoonish, psychotic energy, it was never at the expense of the song. It was, quite simply, an exhilarating performance.
When Patton finally addressed the crowd, he seemed a little nonplussed at his presence at the festival. "Maybe we're putting the 'ass' back in 'bluegrass,'" he said with some snark in his voice, providing a vivid counterpoint to the earnest energy that pervades most of the acts. But the incongruousness worked. When he finally finished, he turned to the crowd and said "San Francisco, thank you so much for putting up with our Italian shit. Congratulations to the San Francisco Giants." The crowd wasn't ready to let him go, and after a single, sweet encore, it was kisses all around for his orchestra.
Emmylou Harris, after a weekend spent making cameo performances with a host of others, returned to her accustomed spot as the concluding act on the big Banjo Stage. Despite all the growth and change that the festival's undergone over the years, Emmy's closing set on Sunday has remained a constant.
Dressed for the occasion in a scarf and finglerless black gloves, she opened with "My Songbird," accompanying herself on her big Gibson acoustic guitar, solo save for some subtle accordion fills. Midway through, guitarist Buddy Miller strode onstage to join in. Set highlights included "Every Grain of Sand," "Easy From Now On," Two More Bottles of Wine" and "Blue Kentucky Girl."
The Hardly Strictly stalwart this year was joined onstage by a host of artists reciprocating her graciousness and support over this weekend and long before. Among them, Steve Earle and Laurie Lewis, the latter of whom introduced a song "Joy For Free," written in 2008 by Kathy Goll-Derstine in honor of Hardly Strictly itself, that was presented in grander form for this year's 10th anniversary.
Dusk had arrived as she sang "Michelangelo." Over at Marx Meadow, Sharon Jones and the sharply dressed Dap Kings were stepping onto the Rooster Stage, planting depth charges for one final festival blowup.
Jones, it turns out, originally hails from Augusta, Ga., the town where the late James Brown was raised.
Now, the Godfather of Soul, we all know, had a few detours from the fast lane that wound up landing him behind bars. Jones also spent some time in jail, but in her case, it was as a corrections officer working at New York City's notorious Rikers Island jail until the music industry finally took notice.
Whatever the coincidences may be, these days, Jones and her band, the Dap Kings, are taking no prisoners. Although Hardly Strictly pays plenty of homage to performers who have earned the right to sit down while they play, this 54-year-old singer concedes nothing to age: She was a ball of fire; dancing, shaking, strutting and screaming, engaging the crowd with an energy eclipsing that of any performer, young or old, male or female, to grace the festival so far.
And her band, the Dap-Kings, whose Memphis/Stax-style soulful funk already put Amy Winehouse on the map a few years ago, pumps it out behind her hard, fast and tight.
Comparisons to Brown and the Famous Flames were inevitable as Jones shook everything she had, using a lot of his moves and footwork. She sassed, strutted and duck-walked as the meadow and surrounding hills filled up with fans and astonished onlookers soaking in her band's gritty sounds of gospel, soul and funk.
The band members, dressed in ties and spiffy suits, looked plenty sharp, too, their shiny instruments gleaming in the stage lights. The horn section, which included a pair of 5-foot-tall silver baritone saxes, honked out elephant sounds as people danced in the dirt on the hillside and in front of the stage. The band setup was classic soul, with horns on one side, bellowing female back-up singers next to the drums, a conga player for that Latin accent and a fat bass and funky guitars.
Their take on "This Land Is Your Land" may have caught first-timers in the audience by surprise; certainly Woody Guthrie's anthem has never before been played the way they do it, a slow, crisp and emotional soul number (It's on the soundtrack for "Up In the Air"). It was a jaw-dropping number that had people shaking their heads in amazement.
The band tore it up on "She Ain't a Child No More" and the stripped-down Sam Cooke-style song "Mama Don't Like My Name." Jones never let up until it was time to go, and sent the crowd home fully satisfied and amazed after one of the hottest shows around here in a long while.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass indeed.