Saturday Oct 1, 2016
By Jon Pruett & Tim Simmers
The cry of a pedal steel guitar seemed to sooth people in the meadow at the Rooster Stage Saturday morning. Buddy Miller’s Cavalcade of Stars were warming up with country music songwriter/guitarist Jack Ingram on tap. Ingram, who just flew in from Austin, Texas, was noticeably moved by the spirited crowd and beauty of the narrow, wooded canyon. “Can’t get any better than this,” he said in his dusty drawl about his first trip to Hardly Strictly. He then strummed down on his jangling acoustic guitar with a hard beat, a Texas attitude, and a snarl in his voice reminiscent of early Bob Dylan with a pinch of the Rolling Stones. His raw, emotionally charged songwriting on a tune for his father helped fuel his reputation as a dramatic live performer. The lonesome sound of the pedal steel and his crisp rhythm section only intensified the experience.
The Mekons (now playing under the name mekons (no ‘the’ and no uppercase) have been a part of Hardly Strictly since day one. Whether in the full-band form or with core members Jon Langford and Sally Timms, the band’s home brew of punk, rock ’n’ roll, country, and pure passion and soul has been an HSB constant. As a raucous seven-piece, they kick into high gear with Sally Timms in fantastic spirits as she spins around dancing and singing alongside Langford. They setlist goes back to 1989’s riveting “Memphis, Egypt” and “Beaten and Broken” from the band’s 1986 “Crime and Punishment” EP. You’d be hard-pressed to find another band who’ve covered so much time – punk/post-punk/college rock/americana and are still able to deliver a passionate, nostalgia-free set. As overheard after the performance, “is it weird that the most inspiring thing you can do in 2016 is to see the Mekons perform?” Weird, no? True, yes.
Later in the early afternoon, there was a crush of people at the Swan Stage. Legendary songwriter Kris Kristofferson was about to perform, and the crowd buzzed as the silver-haired troubadour dressed in black sauntered onto stage. He was alone and carried a black guitar. Kristofferson has crafted songs that profoundly inspired artists and fans for so long it seemed like everybody wanted to see him. A quiet came over the audience as he delivered his classic songs in a somewhat hushed voice. Many were stunned listening to the poetic lyrics of his repertoire. Everybody’s heard Janis Joplin sing “Me and Bobby McGee,” but not many have heard it sung by the man who penned it. His bleak love songs “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “It’s Over, Nobody Wins” were also touching and full of imagery. They were done hauntingly, and sparsely like a master’s sketch. At 80 years old, Kristofferson appeared a bit frail, but nevertheless touched the hearts of a crowd of boomers and millennials, and everybody in between. Lines like, “loving her was easier than anything I’ll ever do again” cut across generations. So did the classic line from “Bobby McGee”, “I’d trade all my tomorrows/for a single yesterday/holding Bobby’s body next to mine.” The meadow at the Swan Stage brimmed with people relishing the moment, and respectfully admiring Kristofferson’s songs. Many of them were tearjerkers. People hung on the picturesque lyrics of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” as he blew raw harmonica riffs while strumming simple cords on his guitar. They sighed and clapped as he dazzled them with a vulnerable voice and the lyrics of a true storyteller. This is a guy who got a standing ovation before he even started.
After Kristofferson’s set, an excited crowd walked up the dusty road toward the Rooster Stage where Bobby Bare had just sung his masterful “Detroit City.” For more than a half century, Bare has made a career of writing memorable songs. Wearing all black, and playing with his son on guitar, Bare also treated the crowd to his classic “I Wanna Go Home” and the folk song “500 Miles.”
Bright afternoon sunshine streamed down on the Arrow Stage as Hot Tuna warmed up with the psychedelic country blues sound they have played for decades. The fuzzy bass of Jack Casady soon intertwined with Jorma Kaukonen’s bluesy guitar on the traditional “Hesitation Blues.” The lyrics rolled off Jorma’s tongue like edgy mantras. Then came the raunchy rocker about a worried mind, letting the psychedelic ghosts from the past back into the park. Grey hairs with tie-dyed shirts danced alongside fresh-faced Hot Tuna fans grooving to the music. Casady and Kaukonen, the ultimate jammers, experimented freely as they felt around for the groove. They built to a crescendo, their electric instruments sometimes wailing away. Roaring applause greeted melodic, bending notes mixing with groaning, rough, blues licks. Sometimes dreamy, sometimes heavy: Hot Tuna even displayed a little Grateful Dead flavor in their tempo-changing fluidity.
Towers of Gold stage is set back to back with the Swan Stage. Just after mid-day and long-standing indie outfit Yo La Tengo take the stage. They’ve been touring on the back of their recent covers album, Stuff Like That There and they are abetted by early member Doug Schramm. Schramm is an extraordinary guitarist and accompanist – so he fills the band’s acoustic, whispery songs with a craftsmanship that helps the band reach into some amazing depths. Lead vocalist Ira Kaplan makes the self-deprecating comment, “thanks for coming to see us instead of Hot Tuna. I probably would have chosen Hot Tuna.” He’s selling himself and the band way too short and the group’s mid-afternoon dives in to “Big Day Coming” the early soul cover “My Heart’s Not In It” sound amazing. They lapse into a honky tonk shuffle on Gene Clark’s “Tried So Heard” and get into a more spacey place on their own “Om” and “Our Way to Fall.”
Being at the farthest end of the HSB grounds, the Towers of Gold stage faces out west towards the Pacific Ocean and the sound carries strongly through the trees. It’s in this clarity that Jah Wobble and his Invaders from Mars begin to set up shop. On the way to find seating, Mekons’ Sally Timms is walking through the crowd, still bubbling from her band’s performance – saying hello and thanks to the various fans. The booking of Jah Wobble is another one of those HSB anomalies that makes sense only in the sense that HSB is nothing but eclectic. Wobble’s fame arose as a founding member of John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols Project, Public Image LTD. His deeply heavy bass sounds were part of what made PIL’s first two albums such vital documents of the new post-punk era. His love of the bass has never faltered over the years and his sounds have explored world music, deeper dives into dub and whatever else suits him. It is a rare thing to hear pre-programmed dance rhythms being tested over the speakers as HSB as roots music still feel intertwined with the core of the event. Still, those dancing over the hill at the Silent Disco (wherein headphones are provided to individual dancers for a one collective experience) might have a different thought as to what constitutes HSB in 2016.
Wobble’s Cockney accent ends up giving the crowd a lesson on how to create a piece of dub music. He walks us layer by layer through the bits and pieces of the classic rocksteady/dub track “Liquidator” by the Harry J Allstars with Wobble counting off the rhythms in Japanese. His full set gets people dancing to a Turkish piece co-written with members of the German collective Can before diving into a world-beat-fused version of “Public Image” which gets people, many born before that track was ever released, out dancing on the grass.
Across the meadow the breeze picked up at the Banjo Stage as the rolling melodies and guitar picking of Dave Rawlings floated off the stage with the soaring vocals of Gillian Welch. Rawlings appeared to strangle his guitar, squeezing out notes as his body swayed in the late afternoon sun. With high lonesome singing and ancient melodies, Rawlings and Welch surrender a rich and romantic hillbilly hoedown. Then they cut to a reworking of The Band’s “The Weight”. Welch’s old-time voice belies her youthful appearance. The fertile mix of sometimes three guitars and two or three fiddles at once adds depth to the already sumptuous sound. Rawlings’ high mountain vocals on “Long Time Ago” fit nicely with the silky harmonies of Welch.
Towers of Gold is starting to swarm with a few more cowboy hats than usual and it doesn’t take long that’s partly due to Jamey Johnson and his band. Johnson is working his way through Nashville with song list and swagger that feels a few decades behind the rest of us. For that reason, he’s loved by the same folks that dig Lynyrd Skynyrd as they do Merle Haggard. The impressively bearded crew step to the stage and Johnson announces that they are planning to do something a bit different today. It’s the 40th Anniversary of the filming of The Last Waltz and, seeing that the show was filmed by Martin Scorsese just a few miles from where they are standing (at the now defunct Winterland), the band would like to pay tribute. What follows is an amazing rejuvenation of the songs originally performed by The Band that night. “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Weight”, “I Shall Be Released” , “The Shape I’m In” – you name it. And to say the band knew this material is an understatement, they inhabited it completely and gave it life.
One of the many things that continues to amaze about HSB is that you never know who is going to draw the biggest, most enthusiastic crowds. HSB veterans among us may remember the Dolly Parton performance from 2005. This year, it feels like the amount of goodwill and excitement generated by Cyndi Lauper could power a reasonably sized locomotive. Her charm and thick Queens accent are still in top form as she talks to the crowd in a genuine way about her new album and her life and people are just generally eating it up. “She Bop”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “True Colors” – these all get a fanatically received twangy upgrade and it honestly feels like the crowds for this have never been thicker.
As the last act of the day Saturday on the Rooster Stage, Jackson Browne strolled up to the piano and sat down. The audience sensed they were witnessing a special moment. After hitting a few deeply melodic notes on the keyboard, Browne entered quickly into his own unique sound and it was familiar enough to draw a robust cheer from the crowd. His songs drip with wisdom and humanity, taking people to a higher level. His “Before the Deluge” transported the audience. Its references to Native American suffering resonated on the inspirational anthem. It was deeply sad and uplifting at the same time.
“Let the music keep our spirits high/let the building keep our children dry/let the creation reveal its secrets by and by.” His peers and fans have long revered him, and loved his lyrics and musicianship – but this was on display for everyone today. The crowd sang the lyrics right along with him on favorites like “Running on Empty” and “The Pretender.” He’s a natural performer, and held down the stage like a true artist. He heartily thanked his accomplice on pedal steel guitar, Greg Leisz, whose haunting sound deepened the mood. Leisz’s slide guitar playing also thrilled the crowd, which was packed into the meadow and up the adjacent hills. Browne calmly delivers love songs with emotion and honesty, and isn’t afraid to add personal politics and truth telling. Like when he sang “Walls and Doors,” by his Cuban friend Carlos Varela. “It’s a good song for us now,” he noted. Then he sang the lyrics: “here are those who build walls/and those who open doors.”
He grabbed an electric guitar on “These Days,” and made it sing out as he gave his version of a song long-associated with his one-time-long-ago girlfriend Nico. Browne then brought up one of his favorite songwriters, Shawn Colvin, to help him sing Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots.” That brought another dramatic political moment to the stage.
As if to take the edge off of some of his politicizing he tucked into an expected but much loved favorite = “Take It Easy,” an Eagles hit he co-wrote with the late Glenn Frey of the Eagles. As soon as he kicked it off, it was a eucalyptus-strewn sing-along.