Saturday, Oct 7, 2017

By Jon Pruett, Mark Hedin, Nate Cavalieri

As the crowd spread out blankets and sprawled in front of the Banjo Stage to soak up the Saturday sun, the sparkling tones from Béla Fleck’s banjo set a perfect background. Fleck was performing with partner Abigail Washburn and their gentle tones provided a bright, calm welcome to the day.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski.

“New South Africa,” from Echo in the Valley, their upcoming album, gave way to “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”, with falsetto singing and Fleck playing bluesy lines with a slide. The duo closed with “Take Me to Harlan,” with Washburn singing and high-stepping a percussive rhythmic accompaniment.

Tim O’Brien was next up and, citing his West Virginia roots, O’Brien offered recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and fellow Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” to open, then asked Ralph Stanley sidekick Curley Ray to introduce “Windy Mountain.” “Three Thin Dimes,” by Ohio’s Hutchinson Brothers featured furious fiddling by Shad Cobb before coming in for a soft landing. Still on guitar, O’Brien introduced a deeply moving autobiographical song, “Guardian Angel,” about an older sister who died when he was young. Patrick Sauber’s banjo lines and the clean, staccato bass contributions of Nashville’s Mike Bub were big crowd favorites. After “Sunday’s Coming,” a sprightly crucifixion song by John Lilly, O’Brien introduced “Drunkard’s Grave” by the Bailes Brothers. He wrapped things up with Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories” and then “Little Annie,” with sharp, crackerjack solos all-round.

Back towards the front of the event – Blackfoot Gypsies were raising the (nonexistent) roof on the Porch Stage. Sometimes you just want to see a full-blown rock ‘n’ roll band before noon and these Nashville transplants nailed it. Scarves and necklaces were flying every which way as the group wailed on their Stones/Faces/Black Crowes-esque good time rock ‘n’ roll.

Cosmic cowboy Peter Rowan, onetime member of bluegrass founding father Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, has walked an eclectic path while never lacking for accomplished accompaniment. Today, it was original Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, seated at Rowan’s right playing an acoustic, guitar-shaped bass, and at Rowan’s left on mandolin, Jody Stecher, with Patrick Corte on drums. Opening up with “Sailing on the River of Time,” Rowan held forth on guitar in a gently driving, relaxed set heavy on songs from his latest Dharma Blues album. The mantra-like “Raven,” “My Love Will Never Change” and the title track from his latest, “My Aloha,” prefaced “Swimming in the Deep Blue Sea,” which Rowan said he’d written with his Old and in the Way bandmate and picking partner Jerry Garcia in mind, inspired by the tempo of the waves lapping onto Hawaiian shores.

In the early afternoon, GRAMMY-winning banjo player/songwriter Alison Brown took the Rooster Stage backed by a roster of players from her Nashville label, Compass Records. She also shared the spotlight with one of her recent collaborators: innovative mandolin master Bobby Osborne.
Brown’s jazzy diversions have put her at the progressive edge of bluegrass for some time, but today, the band rolled back through the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” highlighting Frank Sullivan’s mandolin, including a quick taste of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” melody.

Bobby Osborne, making his first HSB appearance in a hit-making career spanning more than 50 years, shuffled onstage beneath a wide-brimmed fedora with a glittering hatband. Looking sharp in a necktie and purple suit with his mandolin slung over his shoulder, he broke into the Osborne’s 1972 hit, “Midnight Flyer” by Paul Craft, featuring his soaring falsetto singing.

Bobby Osborne backstage. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

The relaxed rapport between Brown and 85-year old Osborne was a pleasant highlight of the day, as the meadow filled with a light haze from the BBQ grills and people settled in. The group played a mix of bluegrass and country classics and pleasantly unexpected covers, like Elvis Costello’s “Every Day I Write the Book.” When they embarked on Allman Brothers “Whipping Post” the acoustic picking was suddenly joined by the roar of the Blue Angels—flying in formation overhead as a part of San Francisco’s Fleet Week festivities. Another fly-by happened several minutes later, in a surreal juxtaposition to Brown and Osborne’s lilting, richly harmonized version of Merle Haggard’s “Make the World Go Away.”

Memphis songwriter Dan Penn’s appearance amid Buddy Miller’s Cavalcade of Stars at the Rooster Stage was a revelation. Emcee Chuck Poling was in full “we’re not worthy” mode, saluting his “hit after hit” after Penn left the stage. Penn’s soulful songs lent themselves well to the gospel vocal backing of the next artists in Miller’s spotlight, the duo The War and The Treaty, along with fiddle contributions from his predecessor onstage, young fiddle player Lillie Mae, and Miller’s tasteful guitar interludes. He opened with “I’m Your Puppet,” his 1966 hit for James and Bobby Purify, and followed it with the early Aretha Franklin hit, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Among the other classics he performed were “You Left the Water Running” (Otis Redding, Barbara Lynn, Wilson Pickett) and “The Dark End of the Street,” (covered by everyone from Ry Cooder to James Carr).

Other highlights of the five-hour showcase Miller staged were octogenarian songwriter “Whispering” Bill Anderson, and Gurf Morlix, who adapted former sidekick Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” to comment on the current political climate.

Whispering Bill dove deep into his catalog of smooth country hits of the 60s and 70s and that weeping pedal steel and sweet, airy voice sounded fantastic in the mid-day air. “Still” is one of the great, romantic country classics and when Bill did the spoken word bit in the middle, it was a true heartbreaker.

Across the hazy meadow, songwriter/trombonist Natalie Cressman and Brazilian guitarist Ian Faquini started up at La Victrola Platform, in one of the weekend’s most intimate and inventive sets. Under the blue skies of the early afternoon, the small stage had the relaxed atmosphere of a backyard performance. Cressman got her start playing with jam-rock hero Trey Anastasio, but her own sleek songs evince a background in jazz and an affection for the sophisticated songwriting of Joni Mitchell. Playing selections from her recent The Traces EP and the haunting 2016 release Etching in Amber, Cressman’s voice twisted effortlessly over the rolling rhythms of Faquini’s nylon-string guitar, occasionally giving way to one of her agile trombone solos. In the crowd, Margaret Stone and her family were checking out Cressman’s set and enjoying picnic they’d picked up at the Ferry Building after the ride over from in San Rafael. “We’d never heard of her before today and had plans to sit at another stage,” she said. “But her voice is absolutely lovely and we couldn’t pull ourselves away.”

Maybe his voice isn’t as lovely but he still commanded the new La Victola Platform like he belonged there. That would have been Henry Rollins – the writer / punk / music enthusiast who provided a lot of thoughtful and (yes, it’s true) inspirational commentary about the role of the festival and music in public spaces in our lives in 2017.

Meanwhile, further down the road – the bone-shaking bass of hip-hop mixed with bachata and reggae beats could have only meant one thing – Ozomatli were on the stage. If you’ve never seen the band, not only are you in the minority, you’re also missing one of the great live bands on parade. They offer up all of genres mentioned plus a few others and their spirit and energy is infectious. This is the band that starts playing and suddenly you notice beach balls in the crowd (who brings these beach balls, anyway?).

With Saturday afternoon in full-swing, the polo field in front of the Banjo Stage was full for the set from HSB veterans Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Opening the set with “Wayside/Back in Time,” it was apparent that the duo felt at home at the festival, offering effortless versions of tracks from throughout their catalog. The second tune of the set, “Annabelle,” was released on Welch’s 1996 debut and a treat for longtime fans. When Gillian announced that it was “banjo time on the Banjo Stage,” she picked up the instrument and the duo delivered a pitch-perfect version of “Six White Horses.” Rawlings, eyes shaded under a broad-rimmed white cowboy hat, took the mic to lead a rendition of “Midnight Train” from his recent solo album, Poor David’s Almanack. As the set drew to a close with “Look at Miss Ohio,” the field of fans was swaying along in unison. The crowd raised its voice to join in on the closing tune, “I’ll Fly Away” but the eruption of applause brought Welch and Rawlings out for an encore with songwriter Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show) to end the set with a warm take on the traditional tune “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.”

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were joined by Willie Watson for “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby”. Photo by Jon R. Luini.

Dan Auerbach is most well-known as one half of The Black Keys. Their post-White Stripes take on blues and indie rock has become one of the most defining sounds in popular rock music. Now Auerbach is out on tour supporting his self-titled solo album. The low-key folk-rock and harmony-ridden songs pull on the heartstrings in the afternoon in all the right ways. The mandolin work and Auerbach’s light vocals (with lots of reverb) give off echoes of Workingman’s Dead-style jams. There are some previews of songs written with John Prine and as the sun sets, Auerbach and his backing band weave in and out of some ripping, Crazy Horse-style workouts. A nice, well-received way to close out the Rooster Stage.

Closing down the Swan Stage is the beloved Sturgill Simpson. The crowd is audibly eager for Simpson – who has brought a certain amount of cool credibility to the world of modern country – mainly for diving deep into the worlds of swampy soul and psychedelia in his records. He’s got a soul-belting voice and tears into “Brace for Impact” off of 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as the crowd goes nuts. Part of Simpson’s appeal lies in his hard-to-pin grooves; people would love to call him simply a country singer, but it’s especially apparent live that there is much more to the equation – the band is just blazing through these songs with the bombast of sixties rock classicists and then with the tight grooves of a seasoned soul band. Simpson’s voice is another thing – a rough roar that can also tumble into a cozy drawl. If you haven’t heard his version of “The Promise” the ‘80s dance party anthem made popular by When in Rome – you are in the minority (at least in this crowd) and here it gets a hand-waving sing along. The closing tracks “A Call to Arms” is a bluesy blustery jam that brings out the fire in Sturgill and showcases the band’s tightrope walk of rock power dynamics – there is really no way to follow up a song like this and Simpson and crew close up shop for the night.

As the sun bathed Golden Gate Park in the warm light of late-afternoon Steve Earle, another longtime favorite of the festival, closed the day at the Banjo Stage with his band, The Dukes. In a set filled with energy and grit, Earle sang songs with a timely political urgency, including “City of Immigrants” and “Jerusalem.” One of the most memorable moments of the performance came right in the middle, when he played a heartbreaking version of “Warren Hellman’s Banjo,” which they dedicated to the festival’s founder and benefactor. But many of the most electrifying moments came late in the set, when he covered The Animals’ “San Franciscan Nights,” and minced no words in a fiery political tirade in the middle of “Hey Joe” that brought whoops of support from the crowd. Finally, Earle closed the set with a cover of the Dead’s “I Know You Rider” that brought the crowd to their feet, dancing to the solos in the warm evening light.

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