Sunday October 4, 2015

By Mike Alexis, Hiya Swanhuyser and Mark Hedin

As the throngs arrived for the final day of the 2015 festival, Chicano Batman was waiting for ‘em. At the Porch Stage, the easternmost of this year’s 6.5 official stages, the band was rocking full throttle. If that was a little too much energy for you so early in the morning, though, once one ventured as far as the Banjo Stage, it was altogether different, with the Fairfield Four’s gentle a capella gospel easing San Francisco music lovers into the day’s overwhelming abundance.

Even at this early hour, the lawn expanding from the Arrow Stage was full of blankets and an eager crowd ready for a packed day of music. Led by local garage-pop hero Sonny Smith, Sonny and the Sunsets found some middle ground with their bright, reverb-drenched tones.

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Perched high on a stool center stage, while the Sunsets sat huddled in the corner, Smith and band created a vibe way more intimate than the vast outdoor setting would suggest. Smith’s deadpan delivery and whimsical, dream-like lyrics floated through cool ‘60s guitar licks, bouncy, melodic bass lines and groovy percussion. With hints of HSB alumni Jonathan Richman’s influence peppered throughout songs such as the joyful and clever “The Application,” the band set a laid-back mood that would carry many throughout the day.

“I wrote this song, and I take a lot of hits for it,” Fantastic Negrito said over at the Porch Stage, launching into “An Honest Man,” the theme song of Amazon original TV series “Hand of God.” But looking at the HSB crowd, you wouldn’t know it. Fantastic Negrito has had a lot more than his share of bad luck, most recently when he was arrested at the Outside Lands Festival this year, causing him to miss his set, but Sunday’s festival scene might be the turning point. The set was brilliant, the crowd was rapt, and the band was on point.

They were joined by “The Nashville Tornado,” (Forrest Lee, Jr., shredding) for an updated version of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines.” Fantastic Negrito is known to be a sharp-dressed man, and this day’s attire – a rose-colored shirt, dark tie, and natty vest were no exception.

“I had to walk around for this one,” he told the audience, and then sang every crowd’s theme song: “Lost in a crowd, you feel your thoughts out loud.” (Find that track, which won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest earlier this year, on the band’s new EP.)

The Porch Stage’s feelings and thoughts, it seemed, were mostly admiration for the band, whose “black roots music for everyone” rang out through the sunshine.

It was standing room only up front when Angel Olson and band took to the narrow, shady Rooster Stage to… sound check. One of the festival’s charms is how laid back and familial it all feels and in a weird way, waiting and watching while they milled around the stage checking microphone levels seemed to bridge the gap and bring the audience and performers closer. After a quick, unnecessary trip off the stage and back, Olson commented “weren’t we here just a few minutes ago?” Then, with the noon sun high in the sky but hidden behind the overhanging trees, a chilly wind caused a brief temperature drop as the band started playing.

Olson is a breakout singer-songwriter with a disarming voice. Part indie-folk chanteuse, part classic country crooner, she pairs the ‘50s and ‘60s vocal styles of singers such as Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells with a noirish, minor key, indie rock sound. With impressively controlled vibrato, she hits emotional peaks and valleys, and when her voice cracks beautifully on one of those peaks, the effect is mesmerizing.

A Hardly Strictly staple by now, Nick Lowe fits like your favorite pair of shoes. As always, it was just him and an acoustic guitar, with some of his most well-loved songs under his arm, and the crowd loved him for it. Lowe coasted into his set on the Swan Stage with the non-album track “Stoplight Roses,” before moving on to more familiar fare midway through the show with “Long Limbed Girl” and “Has She Got a Friend.” And for all of us holding our breath with anticipation, Lowe graciously and kindly closed with his two most well-known songs, the classics “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?”

Over at the Banjo Stage, lanky Justin Townes Earle pulled a rabbit out of the hat with a pedal-steel heavy “Dreams,” the ’70s Fleetwood Mac monster hit. Who needs to write new stuff?

James McMurtry, holding forth at the Arrow Stage, opened with a 10-minute “You Can’t Catch Me,” followed by “Wait Till Daylight Comes” and “For All I Know.” Introducing bandmate Tim Holt, he said, “someone broke into his car the other night and left him an accordion.” Thanks, Jim.

“I’d like to thank you all for getting up so early. I know it’s hard,” he said, as the clock neared 2 p.m. With his red Guild he offered sustained lead playing and even feedback on “Stay in My Cadillac.”

Despite how packed the weekend-long festival can get at times, an overriding genial nature possesses the crowd in terms of respecting everybody’s personal space, and any bad vibes were checked back at Fulton Street or the other routes to the music through Golden Gate Park.

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Heidi Clare, over at the Porch Stage, was channeling Marianne Faithfull and Buffy Sainte-Marie sonically, with her Goose Tatums, a band named after the tragic, groundbreaking athlete and entertainer Goose Tatum, “a very unique individual who broke down a lot of barriers for himself and other.” Tatum, a Negro League baseball teammate of Satchel Paige’s and a star with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, invented the hook shot, Claire said. Fiddle, electric bass and slide helped illustrate.

Before Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires’ Swan Stage show began, the packed but relaxed (what’s that smell?) crowd to the left was busy picnicking and playing cribbage when the pinata came out. Which current candidate for president was strung up, thwacked to loud laughter from the crowd, and ultimately rained down candy for all the kids? One guess.

As Bradley took the stage, the audience rose to its feet, and he smiled, the sequins on his flaming red suit shining in the sun. “I love you too, San Francisco! With your wrongness, and your rightness, and your love!”

His Extraordinaires earned their name, their big soul sound drawing more and more fans to the meadow and into the overhanging trees. Bradley spent years performing as Black Velvet, a James Brown impersonator, and his original work draws from Brown’s spirit.

“The world is going up in flames, and nobody wants to take the blame” is an incisive charge — inside a tight groove. The moment was classic HSB.

A dad tossed his smiling, months-old baby in the air, but don’t worry, the little tyke was wearing protective headphones. Close by, an enterprising young woman with face tattoos and two dogs in tow was hawking joints, asking $5 apiece, although business seemed slow.

New to the festival this year was the Bandwagon Stage, positioned on the west end of the Hellman Hollow meadow that includes the Banjo and Arrow stages, east of the Polo Field. There, a stage folds out from a trailer. The arrangement has been making the rounds at Bay Area festivals including Treasure Island and Outside Lands. At HSB 2015, Robyn Hitchcock had closed out Saturday’s lineup and today, following Nancy and the Lambchops, Mandolin Orange, JB Nimble and preceding Kevin Devine, came a set by the “Mini-Mekons” – multimedia artist Jon Langford accompanied by other veterans of the long-running Mekons.

“It’s like clockwork!” Langford exclaimed. He was spot-on: As the little guy of HSB stages, the Bandwagon is prone to sonic overpowering by the Arrow Stage just across the meadow. And until exactly 3:40 p.m. on Sunday, Jamey Johnson’s new-country take on old-country classics was quite audible to the crowd gathered to hear Langford’s set.

At 3:41, Langford laughed and spoke into the microphone. “We’ve got a lot to cram in, so there will be no banter. This is called Big Zombie!” Langford and Sally Timms, Rico Bell et al ran through a set of Mekons songs old and new.

Before starting “Pill Sailor,” Langford called a teenager to the stage. “We need some help from Tommy,” he explained. The kid got up and killed the complicated harmonies on the classic twangy Mekons heartbreaker. Another guest, Titch Jones, was introduced thusly a little later: “If you’ve drank in Point Arena, you know Titch.” Timms graciously held her microphone down to catch the sound of Jones’ homemade-looking wooden spoons.

It’s hard to believe the Blind Boys of Alabama formed more than 70 years ago. Founding member Jimmy Carter has led the band through decades of shifting tastes and styles in popular music, never wavering too far from their signature gospel rhythm and blues sound.

“The Blind Boys don’t like singing to conservative audiences,” he teased the Banjo Stage throngs at set’s start. No worries in San Francisco! The five, sporting matching olive suits and yellow ties and backed by popping, funky five-string electric bass, drums and keys, kicked things off with the gospel standard “People Get Ready” and from there launched directly into Norman Greenbaum’s timeless “Spirit in the Sky.” Too funky to stand still, even if you’re at a microphone!

Another Northern California local, Tom Waits, got the treatment next, as the group took on his “Down in the Hole,” punctuating it with piercing guitar.

“All right now friends, I don’t know how you feel about it, but I think it started off pretty good, don’t you?” Carter asked. After pitching their CD catalog, they really brought things down with “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds.”

While gospel is the heart of Blind Boys of Alabama – “I Shall Not Be Moved” came about next — the band has crossed genres repeatedly over the years, collaborating with everyone from Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel to the Oak Ridge Boys too.

“Amazing Grace” started out sounding like “Stairway to Heaven” before evolving into “House of the Rising Sun,” a welcome curveball that brought a sea of hands waving in the air. The backing band showed off impressive chops, especially when each got a chance to solo after being introduced by Carter.

They left the crowd wanting more, and so, for an encore, fittingly ended the set with Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” which they had recorded with his son.

Over at Towers of Gold, Texas troubadour – another one of those! – Delbert McClinton stood center stage, surrounded by his roadhouse band of keyboards, sax and trombone, plus the usual rock stuff. “She’s out there living it up and I may never live it down,” he sang. “Sometimes you get the honey, sometimes all you get is the sting.”

At times the band sounded downright The Band-like, with melodies reminiscent of “The Shape I’m In” and “The Weight.” But Emmylou Harris’ hit with it notwithstanding, McClinton showed us all who really owns his “Two More Bottles of Wine”

“Standing on Shaky Ground” featured a cowbell and the whole R&B bar-band treatment – keyboard, baritone sax, trumpet and more. “Throw me a life preserver, I’m about to drown in my own tears,” McClinton sang. “Ever since you put me down.”

“Sending Me Angels” boogied and gave the horns room to blow. “If I Had Any Sense I’d Turn Right Around and Leave,” featured a blazing sax solo and hot piano.

“Too Far Gone,” – “for Miss LaRue in New Orleans” had a chill groove, built around piano and harp.

“We’ve gotta make a little time for the good times,” McClinton said as he rolled into “Honey Can You Squeeze Me In?” A funky “Giving it up for Your Love” closed the set.

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Well after the fact, in fact at about 7:30 p.m. when the whole shebang was about done for the year, came two messages from Neko Case via her Twitter account. First: “Wow!! Most disaster-ridden fest show of all time was pretty hilarious. And now I’m on a plane. What the Eff?! How does this world go!”

Over at the Swan stage a few hours before, Case’s show was indeed riddled with problems – mostly of the technical variety, including a long silence at the beginning. However, the stripped-down band — longtime backup singer Kelly Hogan was missed — bounced back, and Case’s overall response to the difficulties was twofold: She praised the festival and audience — a lot — and then went on to give a great show.

In the crowd, two 10-year-old girls sat next to each other on grownups’ shoulders, holding hands. Case, sporting grease-monkey-style coveralls, concentrated on “deep cuts,” to connect with her upcoming eight-album career-spanning box set of vinyl, called “Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule.” Those deep cuts included “Blacklisted,” “This Tornado Loves You,” “Margaret vs. Pauline” and then several songs from her most recent record, “The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight the More I Love You.”

Case’s second tweet: “Thank you @HSBFest audience for riding our technical bummers like a mechanical bull!!! You rule.”

So do you, Neko!

“Country music is like the Catholic church: you can do anything you want, as long as you pay for it,” Robyn Hitchcock said, his signature sardonic wit on full display in the late afternoon on the Rooster Stage. Accompanied by the Sadies, a pre-eminent country band from Canada who have backed Neko Case, Neil Young and many others, and rocked the opening set at the Swan Stage all by themselves the morning before, this was one of those rare, only at Hardly Strictly kind of sets. Billed as “Robyn Hitchcock and the Sadies play ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ and other delights,” they delivered that and then some, playing the entirety of the Byrds’ seminal, landmark country rock record in tracklist order.

Mostly faithful to the original material in arrangement and execution, it was Hitchcock’s singular, inimitable voice that breathed new life into these songs. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Hickory Wind” sounded a bit shaggier and less plaintive than on the classic record, however it should be noted that for all his eccentricities, Hitchcock can sound downright sentimental when he sings.

By now, the sun had passed the hanging trees and hung low in the sky, its descent toward the horizon casting a bright yellow glow on the crowd. Decked out in the finest country music stage wear (guitarist Travis Good looking sharp in his Nudie Suit), the band picked up the pace a bit with “Pretty Boy Floyd” while a guy up front spastically danced with his hands in the air like he was attempting the watusi. The band closed the set with their promised “other delights,” a blistering cover of Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” and finally, “Queen of Eyes,” from Hitchcock’s own band the Soft Boys.

Over at the Arrow Stage, big Ray Benson, all 6’7” of him, pony tail, goatee, mustache, aviator shades and all topped by a big straw cowboy hat, led his western swing band – four of the seven wearing cowboy hats of their own – onstage for a lively set of western swing. With two fiddles at times, a four-neck pedal steel, horns, drums, upright electric bass, piano and his own customized electric guitar, the band opened with a swinging “Miles and Miles of Texas” and “Route 66” kicked off by Emily Gimble’s boogying piano, with Benson, Gimble and fiddler Katie Shore trading verses.

“Good to see you all here today, the world’s greatest music festival ever!” Benson beamed. “We played a lot, but there ain’t nothing like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in the world. Y’all know that!” The band had only played the festival once before, in ’08, but likely only because they’re so peripatetic, and have been for more than 40 years.

“We’re gonna do a bunch of Bob Wills tunes for ya,” he continued; “this ain’t one of ‘em,” and, not drifting a yard off the reservation, launched into Waylon Jennings’ “Bob Wills is Still the King.” Proving his point, “San Antone Rose” and “I Hear You Talkin’” followed, with twin fiddles, pedal breaks and more verses snidely traded between Benson and Gimble. By then, the band had the dancers swinging wherever there was room on either side of the crowd. After “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” sung by Shore, and “The Girl I Left Behind,” Robert Earl Keen sauntered out “all the way from Kerrville,” to sing “Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas.” “Boogie Back to Texas” followed, featuring Gimble again, doing her boogying thing. Wills songs all.

“If you’d dare to dance, we applaud you,” Benson said as he introduced Shore and “the fastest tune you’ll hear outside Bluegrass, U.S.A! Are you ready? Time for the ‘Tiger Rag!’” They’d recorded this with Old Crow Medicine Show, a band, Benson noted, that is neither old nor doctors. It featured hot solos on guitar, mando, a bit on bass, even. Their first song to hit the charts, back in ’74, Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” came next.

“In 1971, Asleep at the Wheel moved to the Bay Area … because we could,” Benson said, goofing on a portentous guitar riff as he spoke. “We came out here and crashed on the floor of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. Bill Kirchen taught me how to play this thing. We played with. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Clover, the Doobie Brothers, Huey Lewis, John McPhee, all the great folks .. and I’m gonna do this and dedicate that to all the folks that played up and down the Bay Area.

“My pappy said son, you’re going to drive me to drinking if you don’t quit driving that – “ he started, then paused. “Hot Rod Lincoln!” someone chimed in.

“You know, friends, ever since that damn Matthew McConaughey started driving a Lincoln, strange shit been happening. Let’s try this all together now.”

“Hot Rod Lincoln” featured plenty of goofing, with Shore and Benson throwing in various automotive sound effects — horns, sirens, screeching and parodies of police loudspeaker commandments before Benson’s windmilling motions brought it to a close. The fiddles sprang right back into the fray, though, with “Big Balls in Cowtown,” complete with Benson’s throat-singing shenanigans to bring “The Wheel” into the depot.

“Let’s everybody sing along and dedicate this song to the man who gives us all this: Warren Hellman and his wonderful memories that he’s left the city of San Francisco,” he said, before launching into Roy Rogers’ “Happy Trails.”

“Who cares about the clouds when we’re together? Just sing a song and bring that sunny weather .. Everybody! Till we meet again!“

With a brisk “We’re the Texas Playboys, from the Lone Star State,” off they went.

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Out west at the Towers of Gold Stage, Los Lobos opened up with guitars growling behind David Hidalgo’s plaintive singing. The show biz veterans gave barely a nod to show biz, with bassist Conrad Lozano looking extra comfy in shorts, and none of ‘em trying too hard on the visual tip.

No matter. The band’s never had to bolster its musicianship with show biz gimmickry, and on this Sunday afternoon its comfort in a wide array of Americana elements was plain.

Following the “Emily” opener in a riff-heavy set came “I Walk Alone,” with its Bo Diddley beat, “Made To Break Your Heart,” from the new album “Gates of Gold,” released “last week, I think,” Cesar Rosas had said, then his lead vocal on “That Train Don’t Stop Here,” which went from an uptempo, swinging jazzy kickoff down to almost silence before Rosas’ guitar work brought things up again.

“La Venganza de los Pelados” featured Steve Berlin on sax. The new album’s title track brought us Hidalgo singing over a gently loping rhythm, “for all you dancers out there,” he said as the groove shifted into “Poquito Para Aqui,” “This song is ladies’ choice. Let’s Cumbia one time!”

“Soy Mexico Americano” and the anthemic “Volver, Volver” gave way to Los Lobos’ Grateful Dead cover “Bertha,” another song that went from full-bore all the way down to just Hidalgo’s Telecaster play. “Mas y Mas” rambled from a drum solo to breaks by all three guitarists.

As the sky took on the hue of the new album’s title, it was time to call it a day. “Peace, love and happiness!” Rosas said. “We love you all. Thank you!”

Closing out the Rooster stage events, Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers appeared onstage to wild acclaim, picked up their signature acoustic guitars, and immediately heard from an audience member who claimed it was her birthday.

“There’s a woman in the front row here who wants us to eat an oyster,” they announced, laughing. Still, “We’re not going to do that, because we just don’t know what would happen.”

Their excellent set of their cultishly adored eclectic folk-based songs would have to be the audience’s only birthday gifts from them. “If you know these songs and you want to sing along, it’d be so lovely to see you,” Ray said, encouragingly. So the crowd sang along, especially on “Power of Two” and “Shame on You,” Indigo Girls classics both. They paused several times, just to hear the giant guest choir.

Flatlanders’ frontman Jimmie Dale Gilmore was spotted at the side of the stage, looking rapt.

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Over on the Banjo Stage, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were at their crowd-pleasing best. Kicking off with the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels” into Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” followed by Gram Parsons’ and Harris’ “Las Vegas” was a one-two-three punch that left the crowd dizzy. Crowell is a solid stand-in for Parsons, evoking a similar plaintiveness when singing harmonies with Harris on “Love Hurts.”

Harris mentioned that it took 38 years for the two of them to collaborate, but recording and touring together for the last few years has created a palpable chemistry. Unsurprisingly, they peppered the set with songs from the two records they recorded together, most notably the melancholy title track to this year’s release, “The Traveling Kind.”

Emmy’s become the grand dame of the festival, more stunning every year in her Sunday closing sets. With Australian guitarist Jedd Hughes making it look way too easy, they’re just tearing the roof off things. “Luxury Liner,” not the first song that comes to mind when one considers Parsons’ legacy, has been tremendous the past couple of festivals. This time around, the set ended with Crowell’s signature “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Hard to argue about that, tore up the way things got!

Joined by Steve Earle, who took the lead in kicking things off, with Dave Rawlings Machine and his sidekick and his other sidekick, his tiny Epiphone, all taking part with Buddy Miller too, a mellow “I Am Just a Pilgrim on This Road” set the festival gently on the road to 2016.