Sunday Oct 2, 2016
By Mike Alexis & Jon Pruett
Defying all known forces of nature and weather-reporting, the blues skies open up on Sunday, bringing with them a seemingly calmer crowd than the day before. The midday sun is cracking through the sky as Buffy St. Marie takes the Swan stage. Buffy St. Marie has been a social activist and songwriter for longer than most of the crowds at Hardly Strictly have been alive and if you think that means she would deliver the older-statesman type set, you’d be hugely mistaken. St. Marie bounds on stage with a wild backing band diving into nearly aggressive heavy rock sounds. She revisits tracks like her early ‘90s success, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” with an especially robust vocal style that shows off some of her famous vibrato. Her activism is nearly as well-known as her music and she shows off some righteous indignation to a welcoming, sympathetic crowd. One of her most well-known songs, “Until It’s Time for Me to Go” she says, “made me enough money to be in pop music”. This likely in part to covers from Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, and Andy Williams. But St. Marie is focused on the present – her most recent album, 2015’s Power in the Blood shows a vital voice still trying to conjure up the spirits of change.
The Porch Stage is the smallest of all stages and it’s also right by the main entrance so there’s always a healthy crowd here but nothing like some of the other stages. It’s always relaxed and it’s great for Elizabeth Cook to kick things into a gear with her roaring four piece band. The group have a fiery twang that puts them square in the Nashville tradition, but there’s a roughness and poetic soul to the songs she plays off of her Exodus of Venus album. It’s likely the last time we’ll see her on a stage this small.
A quick jaunt to the center of the grounds and we’re at the Arrow Stage which, despite it’s being surrounded by stages on all sides, still carries sound remarkably well. Here we’re privy to the soul and blues revue of the highest order presented by the Little Village Foundation and its founder, Jim Pugh. Little Village is part record label / part community that searches out music in the roots tradition, puts the music in the hands and hearts of fans and makes sure the artists reap the financial rewards. Headliner Wee Willie Walker is introduced by a band including Rick Estrie and Kid Anderson. Walker had a few singles out the ‘60s on esteemed labels like Goldwax and Chess, but had fallen out of the limelight. Strutting on stage to opener, “Read Between the Lines”, it’s clear that Walker is right where he belongs. His style is one that partly smooth in the realm of Hi Records-era Al Green or rough like the most raucous of Solomon Burke or OV Wright sides. “Is That It” kicks things into a soul jazz shuffle before the band kicks into some funk so dirty that Walker himself claims it’s “damn near x-rated.” West coaster Curtis Salgado helps out on Walker’s cover of the Beatles’ “Help” – which is kind of an oblique nod to his cover of “Ticket to Ride” from way back in the Goldwax days.
Unfortunately for the accordion fans among us, the creole sounds of Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie are waylaid as the gents are stuck on a plane in the south. But all is not lost as teenaged Mariachi Mestizo are brought onstage (they were already scheduled to play a full set later in the day on a different stage) to fill in the gaps. They are a brilliant group from Delano, California that play with dexterity, soul and precision. The band quickly swells onstage as Curtis Salgado and Tracy Nelson (former singer of late 60s soul blues band Mother Earth) joins the group.
Back at the Banjo stage, The Jerry Douglas Band are getting the crowd into doing a kind of interstellar jig as they launch into big instrumental bluegrass pieces that have the complexity of progressive rock. Pockets of the crowd are obviously “in the zone” for Douglas and company. Surely many folks know of Douglas for his assistance on Mumford and Sons version of “The Boxer” but for this set he’s brought Maura O’Connell with him. Her voice has a warm, wavering soul quality that fleshes out some of the songs that they worked together on with the Transatlantic Sessions album.
Wynonna & the Big Noise are next up and it’s a blast of heavy roots rock and twang right from the get-go. Wynonna Judd has roots in the Bay Area (spent some time growing up in Marin) so she’s welcomed on the large field as she does a few shoutouts. Playing tracks from her album of the same name, Wynonna & The Big Noise may lack some of the big names that help out on the album (Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Jason Isbell) but there’s plenty of fire on tracks like “Ain’t No Thing” – which mix a scratchy, gritty guitar tone with Judd’s own southern charm. A few jokes about her family and one especially well-received comment about how “there’s freedom on the other side of 50” and the band closes with an unexpected cover of neo-soul crooner Rafael Saadiq’s “Staying in Love.”
It seems like a million years ago since we were at The Porch Stage for Elizabeth Cook (in actuality it’s been 3 hours) but we’re back for C.W. Stoneking. This Australia-based guitarist blues belter sounds like was raised out of delta nearly 80 years ago. Take a listen to the recently released Gon’ Boogaloo and you’ll see what we mean. We’re talking pre-WWII guitar gospel but with a Sun Records sound of early rockabilly. Tracks like “The Zombie” are dirty juke-joint blues while “How Long” feel like a baring of the soul. Stoneking’s voice is another remarkable thing – it’s a nearly indecipherable mush of Aussie and Creole and Boris Karloff. Is it affectation and did this gentlemen arrive from a time machine? We’re not sure, but the music is brilliant.
Inclement weather seems to be a tradition at the festival, but today Karl the Fog shows mercy and stays away. Threats of rain earlier in the day caused many to overdress, so now we’re shedding the knit hats and raincoats and soaking in the rare sunshine waiting for The John Doe Rock’n’Roll Band at the Towers of Gold Stage. Not to be a genre stickler, but there is a lot more to this band than their qualifier “rock ‘n’ roll” suggests. As a legendary punk rocker from the band X, who also immerses himself in country and rockabilly with the Knitters and then slides into an Americana singer-songwriter as a solo artist, Doe seems to have put this band together to indulge all aspects of his musical impulses. With Howe Gelb from Giant Sand on guitar lending his signature desert-blues twang, Doe and band lead us through a loosely-defined rock ‘n’ roll set, mixing American gothic with tender hearted ballads, as well as some sweet gospel in the form of a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Pressing On.” The band ends its set with fan favorite “The Golden State,” one of Doe’s catchiest songs.
Mid-afternoon on the Rooster stage, the emcee greets the crowd with a warm thank you to Warren Hellman for chasing the rain away. Since the festival began, the long and narrow Rooster Stage has always highlighted quality songwriters of all stripes, and cult-favorite Jonathan Richman delivers with his inimitable style. He’s a real charmer and with drummer Tommy Larkins, his musical partner of 25 years solidly by his side, Richman exudes an infectious playfulness.
About a third of the way through Richman’s set, a crackling, malfunctioning PA system– sounding like intermittently exploding firecrackers– startles the crowd, but the band plays on. When the PA fails completely, Richman and Larkins don’t miss a beat; with a pair of maracas in hand and Larkins by his side still pounding away at the drums, the crowd sees what a consummate showman Richman can be. Shaking and shimmying around the stage in his bright red shirt, we become electrified, knowing we are experiencing something special. A minute or so later, the PA system is back up and running with huge cheers all around.
Richman has always exuded a child-like wonder in his songs and at 65 years old he tells the crowd he’s “more curious than ever.” His flamenco and classical style strumming on full display, the songs are stripped down to their essence, uncomplicated and emotionally honest. Towards the end of the set, Richman offers up “Crazy Love” which ends up morphing into a version of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” with Richman leading a sing along with the entire crowd to the refrain of “She gives me love, love, love, love crazy love.”
Another consummate songwriter leads us into the early evening on the Rooster Stage. Rosanne Cash kicks off her set with “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” a Lennon/McCartney number that she turned into a hit over 20 years ago. With John Leventhal, her guitarist, producer (and husband of 21 years) serving up tasteful licks on his telecaster, Cash and her backing band run the gamut between soft and sweet to hard-stomping country music.
It’s no surprise that Cash takes songwriting seriously and it’s heartwarming to hear her extrapolate between songs on where she gets her inspiration. Turns out hearing a loved one say, “What’s the temperature, darling?” Is all she needed to pen the sweet country ballad “Etta’s Tune.” With the set heavy on tunes from her 2014 album the River and the Thread, Cash proves that her songwriting prowess is in top form.
The Gold Stage is absolutely packed, the entire lawn filled for the Dropkick Murphys, a band that is equal parts traditional Celtic music and punk. Possibly the most aggressive sounding band on any stage this day, the band mixes Marshall stacks and gang vocals with traditional Irish accordion to create breakneck-speed rock ‘n’ roll that has the crowd on their feet. In fact some are off their feet crowd surfing in front of the stage while hundreds of folks around them slam into each other in the mosh pit. The entire band in all black and with a blindingly bright green drum kit, Dropkick Murphys look and sound far on the “hardly strictly” side of the festival and it’s a welcome change of pace.
Ending the evening in the western corner of the Festival grounds over on the Swan stage is Alternative hit makers, Cake from Sacramento. Over to the left of the stage, is what let’s unofficially call Hippie Row. There’s baton twirlers, hula hoopers, and its own makeshift marketplace where one can get hemp jewelry for a fair price or a warm PBR for an exorbitant one.
Another capacity crowd and out of the thousands in attendance, right off the bat one poor soul gets singer John McCrea’s attention. McCrea notices that he is videoing the set and calls him out in a fairly long, seemingly well rehearsed diatribe for not being in the moment. However, before it gets too awkward, Cake launch into their single from 2010, “Sick of You” which contains the caustic and prescient line, “Every camera / every phone / all the music that you own / won’t change the fact / you’re all alone.” Cake’s music is an eclectic mix of upbeat jangly riffs, catchy hooks and mariachi trumpets and we’re feeling lifted even when the lyrics sometimes strive to bum us out. With an envious amount of great songs at their disposal, Cake offer a seemingly endless party mix that has this packed crowd dancing as the sun goes down behind them.