Saturday Oct 3, 2015
Jon Pruett, Tim Simmers & Mark Hedin
It’s around 11 am on Saturday in Golden Gate Park. This is still relatively early in the day for the festival. The dozens of rows of empty bicycle racks you pass as you near the main entrance will have turned into a labyrinth of metal and rubber by 6pm – practically a work of art in its density and size. But the clear path at this hour means that it’s fairly easy to grab a seat in the grass and that’s just what happens for Madisen Wood and the Mama Bear – a duo out of Kansas City abetted here with a drummer. Not an ordinary musical duo – Madisen Wood is up there onstage with his actual mother singing folky, bluesy songs with a heavy air of melancholy in their harmonies. The tunes themselves are pretty upbeat, with standouts being “Yellow Taxi” (not the Joni song) and “Silent Scream.”
It’s just after noon on the Banjo Stage and Laurie Lewis and her Right Hands are doing their part to honor the “strictly bluegrass” aspect of the festival’s original angle. With longtime sidekick Tom Rozum playing mandolin to her left, the staple of the Bay Area bluegrass scene offered material of her own, a Louvin Brothers cover (“My Baby Came Back”) and more before closing with Doc Watson‘s “Way Downtown.” There were plenty of detours along the way. After rolling out June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” they answered it with the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Cool Water.”
Over at the Rooster Stage, songwriter Jim Lauderdale is warming up the early crowd with a soothing mix of soul, country blues and hillbilly picking. People are easing into the day – lounging on blankets and lawn chairs, sipping coffee or eating a bite of lunch. Before long, Lauderdale has some people dancing as others sing along. He delivers some earthy originals, and there’s a hint of Dr. John in Lauderdale’s voice. Tunes like “And it Hurts” show his sensitive side, but when guitarist Buddy Miller joins him on stage they both go for the tasty Americana licks. Miller, the gospel, blues and country guitar ace, brought his own parade of stars to the Rooster Stage on this afternoon. Paying homage to some musical ghosts in Golden Gate Park, Lauderdale cut into “Throw the Bucket Down,” a tune by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. He spiced it up with some Memphis soul and country blues flavoring.
The ghosts of Golden Gate Park woke up again when Hot Tuna took the Banjo Stage in the early afternoon. The audience included several generations, but it was the grey hairs in the crowd that had a twinkle in their eye and a mischievous grin in anticipation of the popular duo.
“It’s good to be back in Golden Gate Park,” said Jack Casady, Hot Tuna’s legendary bassist who also played with the old Jefferson Airplane. Casady has been playing with Jorma Kaukonen for more than 50 years, and it shows the way they weave notes together. Their country blues sensibility has long been a staple around San Francisco, and when the pair adds a drummer and goes electric they resemble a power trio.
On “Hesitation Blues,” the hushed voice of Kaukonen took center stage. Many people mouthed the words as he sang “If the river was whiskey/ and I was a duck/ I’d dive to the bottom/ and never come up.”
Their blues got howling as Kaukonen played darker, longer solos. For a while, the music turned psychedelic a la classic Jefferson Airplane. With the moaning blues, Casady’s driving bass and the fat drums, the music soon became grinding rock and roll. A light breeze blew in as people danced to the hard-edge electric sound of “Rock Me Baby.”
Back at the Porch Stage in early afternoon and the sky is finally beginning to peak out. Taking the stage are famed guitarist Nels Cline and jazz prodigy Julian Lage (also on guitar). Nels Cline is probably most famously known as the guitarist in Wilco, but he has a long history of avant-garde and improvisational work behind him. And it’s this history that he visits onstage. At times challenging, at times jaw-droppingly great – the guitar duo feel like an amalgamation of jazz great Grant Green’s fluid style mixed with the legendary “difficult” guitar music of Derek Bailey. It’s a nice lesson in how to take a melody, fracture it and then return it from whence it was found.
Over on the Rooster Stage, songwriters continued offering penetrating roots-based tunes. The harmonies of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams rang through the meadow, sometimes mournful, sometimes joyful. On their acoustic guitars, they created a crossfire of country, gospel and soul. It melded well with the honky-tonk piano, stand-up bass and dobro.
The band really clicked on the gospel folk song “If I had My Way,” getting the audience to sing along. Then it tore up Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” and the spiritual “This Old World is Almost Gone.” Hot Tuna’s Kaukonen joined in to help close the show, adding some biting and emotional blues riffs.
That set the tone for Tony Joe White, best known for his gems “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.” White strummed his jangly old acoustic guitar and yielded some stunning back- porch Mississippi swamp blues with his big baritone voice.
Maybe the most magical moment of the day came with the appearance of mythical blues guitarist Ry Cooder playing with bluegrass, country and gospel trailblazer Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharon White. Cooder’s son Joachim played drums with Cooder-White-Skaggs.
Cooder looked humble in a big plaid shirt and bright blue sock hat. He sang deep harmony while playing guitar, banjo and his signature slide guitar. Skaggs’ mandolin rang and rumbled through the music, and he also added guitar and fiddle. White played guitar and sang in her soulful country style. Her moving vocals on the Hank Williams’ song “Mansion on the Hill” was a highlight.
“We’re walking through the history of country, gospel and bluegrass here,” Skaggs noted. “There’s nothing newer than 1965.” Cooder seemed moved playing the traditional songs he heard on the radio as a kid in Santa Monica. He sought out Skaggs and White, and learned some of their songs on YouTube, he told the audience. He’s played with everyone from Mavis Staples to Flaco Jimenez and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Cuban greats in the Buena Vista Social Club.
At one point Cooder picked up the slide guitar and the crowd buzzed with anticipation. It was the moment they were waiting for. For a brief minute or so it was pure Ry Cooder, driving a roadhouse style, leaning back and playing those long, guttural slide guitar notes. Many consider him as the ultimate pioneer in mining great American and international music. The crowd gave him a beefy roar, and it was clear they felt they were viewing a treasure. Cooder even picked up the mandolin briefly and banged out a train song. If they weren’t playing “Glory Land” it felt like they were going there.
It’s prime afternoon time by the time the crowds have gathered around the Towers of Gold stage to hear what will happen when Joe Jackson will take the stage. Known for a string of smart pop hits in the ‘80s that bridged the worlds of Elvis Costello and jazz standards, Jackson has continued to forge a distinctive path with a tightly knit fan group who rally behind him. The large crowds out today are definitely versed in songs like 1979’s “It’s Different For Girls”, which leads off the set with Jackson tackling the piece on solo piano. The whole band shortly joins and nails “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” with a huge crowd sing along before diving in out of well-received material that carries the same weight and immediacy as classics like “Sunday Papers.”
For fans of the smart side of ‘80s alternative music, the short shot from Joe Jackson to Paul Weller must have been a huge blessing. Weller was once the youthful leader of The Jam – their fusion of punk energy and ‘60s mod stylings that made them huge in the UK and gave them a pretty substantial following in the US (still evident in the diehard fan carrying a handmade sign for The Jam – a good 30 years after their breakup). He drops in two Jam songs into a frankly blistering set (an unexpected “Man in the Corner Shop” and a fiery “Start). The still youthful Weller is something of the elder statesman back home where his vast solo catalog is a constant presence in the press. That aside, he and his band put forward a muscular, heavy and melodic set – invoking everything from Steve Winwood’s Traffic to The Move and, unsurprisingly, The Fab Four. It’s a rousing late afternoon of Brit-rock that goes over in a huge way with the crowd.
Shortly after Weller’s set comes to a close (what, no “That’s Entertainment”?) the allure of Boz Scaggs’ silky soul voice and smooth R&B-styled guitar brings a river of new fans to the meadow just a few dozen feet away. Scaggs’ doesn’t disappoint – delivering “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown” in note-perfect versions which cause hundreds of sing alongs as the sun started to go down below the tips of the trees. The band’s pulsating funk riffs and more soul vocals from Boz continue to warm the crowd through this solid set.
The sun is setting and it’s time for a rousing, inspired Steve Earle set. Earle waxes conversational with the massive crowd.
“What has occurred is, since we were last in Hellman Hollow, we’ve made ourselves a blues record,” Steve Earle, standing on the Banjo Stage holding only a harmonica said Saturday afternoon after his first number, a loping “Baby.”
The band included the lovely redhead Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, her husband Chris Masterson on Strat and a drummer, Will Rigby, and Kelly Logan for the most part on upright bass and Chris Clark on accordion, mandolin and “whatever else calls for a pair of hands” as his boss put it.
“Love Is Gonna Blow My Way,” from 2013’s The Low Highway, melodically reminiscent of the standard “Blue Skies,” featured a jazzy arrangement and highlighted Whitmore’s fiddling. After that, a couple all the way back from Earle’s first release: “My Old Friend the Blues” and the “Guitar Town” album’s title track. Then, with Earle donning an electric mandolin, “Copperhead Road.”
Paying tribute to Hardly Strictly benefactor Warren Hellman, Earle next featured another from “The Low Highway,” his song “Warren Hellman’s Banjo,” with Earle chording on his own banjo and referring to bluegrass standards such as “Red Haired Boy,” “Soldiers Joy,” “Shady Grove” and “Bile Them Cabbage Down.”
With the skies darkening, the rock ’n’ roll began to rise, a “Hey Joe” with Jimi Hendrix’s ascending riffs prominently featured in a guitar-heavy arrangement. The band left the stage, but Earle was quickly back as the crowd showed its appreciation.
“We gotta do this before we go,” he said. “Bernie Sanders for president 2016!”
With that, the band churned into “The Revolution Starts Now.”
A fiery finale comes to the Swan Stage in the form of Celtic punks Flogging Molly. Having seen some amazingly fervent crowds over the years at HSB (Dolly Parton in 2005, Gogol Bordello in 2013), this one just might take the proverbial (beer-covered) cake. Hardly Strictly has done much to remind people that the music industry trends are not indicative of the public’s tastes. Seeing an event like this – a raw set of punk rock and soul-baring rock ‘n’ roll delivered with a traditional Irish slant – to thousands and thousands of screaming fans (and plenty of first-time converts) makes you believe in the power of live music once more. The labels may be struggling, but live music still brings out the fans in waves, and an event like Hardly Strictly and their eclectic bookings is a reminder that no streaming platform or digital download is ever going to replace that. Viva la music!