Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Oct 3-4, 2009

After years of searching, I’ve found my people. And they were all with me at the Star Stage at the 9th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Saturday afternoon.

I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but my wife agreed a weekend getaway to San Francisco, a couple hours by plane, was a good idea. I had an earned day off, she took a holiday day, and within a few hours of making the decision we had booked the rooms and flight.

What a treat! We decided to spend the Friday afternoon of our arrival seeing as much of the city as we could, foregoing John Prine and Lyle Lovett. Our hotel was in the heart of the Haight area- Stanyan Park- and was quite nice, although we were shortly to discover it was a bit like sleeping in a tent. The hotel was right across from the park, but deceptively far from the festival site- it ended up being about a brisk, 30 minute walk to the festival.

None the less, we jumped on the Hop On, Hop Off bus tour that stopped across from the hotel, and within 90 minutes of arriving in the city, were streaming across the Golden Gate Bridge on top of an open-air double-decker bus. I was giddy like a kid! Deana claimed I wasn’t as excited when we were in Greece, which was only partly true- when in Greece, I was constantly exhausted, so it was difficult to show excitement.

Truly a beautiful city, the Hop On tour was a nice way to get a quick overview of the city. An extended stop at Macy’s downtown demonstrated that Starbucks coffee truly tastes the same no matter where you are and that some folks will pay way too much for a sweater. We concluded our city tour unsure of how to spend our evening, and found a nice place for supper around the corner from the hotel- Siam Lotus, I believe.

But before we got there, I saw- in the distance- the glory land that is Amoeba Records! O, gosh. What a place. We don’t have stores like this in Alberta anymore, and likely never did. An unreal selection, and because I was pressed for time, I never made it past the first five aisles. The CD clearance section was bigger than most retail stores in my area! 14 discs and $30 later and we were ready to eat.

We turned in pretty early after the flight and stress of a new city, and made plans for a long day at the festival site. One of us had a long day, anyway.

My wife repeatedly challenges me on why I go to festivals. She points out that I hate crowds, which is generally true. I hold noisy chatterers in disdain. In general, I find port-o-potties psychologically scarring. Now, while I feel she is projecting her feelings a little bit here, in general she has a point. I shouldn’t like festivals for a whole lot of reasons, including the ones mentioned as well as less than ideal sound, excessively priced food, and set changeover times that are usually painfully long. And yet I continue to go. I am pleased to say that on the whole Hardly Strictly exceeded all expectations, and only the port-o-potties cast a pall over my two days on the grounds.

My wife and I decided we didn’t want to run around the grounds capturing every act of appeal. So we had made our selections based on a mutual common ground, and we had most of our day slated for the Rooster Stage. She thought Jorma Kaukonen would be to her taste, and I thought she would enjoy the Boz Scaggs revue as well.

The decision made, we set out for our walk through the park to the festival site. And we walked. And walked. With only a general idea of where we were going- even following a map- we likely added a couple kilometres to our journey, but for the most part it was a very nice walk through a lovely green space. (For the record, if you’re going- walk straight west up JFK Drive…if only we knew!)

We set up our mats at the Rooster Stage, and got ready for a day. Walking across the site of the Banjo Stage, I started to really get a sense of the size of this event- it makes the Edmonton Folk Festival seem quaint, and gives Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park a run as a primo festival site as far as trees, shade, and atmosphere go.

Marshall Crenshaw was up first, and did a fine little set. Not terribly engaging, but that had more to do with how far from the stage we were, not to mention the jerk who set up a normal-sized chair four feet in front of our ground level mats- wearing a freakin’ straw hat to boot. That he and his colleagues seldom paused in their chats did little to temper the holes my eyes were drilling into his mealy wee brain…but I had promised myself not to care about such things, and therefore eased back to listen to the power pop sounds of Crenshaw.

While a fan- I have several of his albums and believe his version of “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” is a top 100 all-time rock song- I was surprised at how many songs I could mouth-a-long to.

My wife started the Guy Clark jokes before he even hit the stage, and she soon went for a walk rather than listen to his ‘old man’ music. I thought his set was pretty good- he was in strong voice, Verlon Thompson complemented with nice lead work, and Bryn Davies was a nice, unexpected touch on bass and vocals.

Clark did the expected numbers- “L. A. Freeway,” “Home Grown Tomatoes,” and “Let It Roll”- but no “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train” (fine by me, to be honest) or “Texas, 1947” or “Randall Knife” which would have been nice. A few new songs- “Some Days the Song Writes You,” “The Guitar”, and “Hemingway’s Whiskey”- held their own. By the time “Dublin Blues” and “Stuff That Works” were done, I was very pleased that I had forgone some of my other choices for a set from the master.

Mid-set, my plans for the day changed when Deana decided she had already had enough of the people and didn’t want to put up with a day in the wind and dirt; she happily went off to continue her city tour (“You’ll probably enjoy yourself more without me,” she claimed; I denied such, but after almost thirty years, I could tell she wasn’t buying it) and I hastily re-planned my day. O, the bounty of choices I faced!

After a few minutes at a way too crowded Banjo Stage trying to listen to the Tim O’Brien Band, I made the last minute decision to head toward the Star Stage for Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women. The reasons were numerous- I always enjoy Dave Alvin, Laurie Lewis had just appeared in Red Deer so the chance to have her in my city one week and then see her in her’s eight days later was too obviously serendipitous to pass up, and the fact I probably wouldn’t have another chance to see them as a combo also played a part. But mostly, it was sentimental curiosity- with the recent death of Amy Farris, I really wanted to see and hear what the band would do.

Since I arrived a full-set early for the show, I found an almost too good to be real space down front, and even met some folks from Utah and Wisconsin to chat with. All the signs were present that the show may be a bit rough- Dave and Laurie working up a tune with fill-in fiddler Suzy Thompson, a lot of uncomfortable milling about on stage from various musicians. But the smiles were obvious, and soon it was apparent that we were about to witness something quite spectacular.

I’ve seen Dave Alvin several times at various festivals, but never to such an attentive and involved audience. We knew all the words, we were familiar with most of the moves and riffs. After years of searching, I had found my people. And they were all with me at the Star Stage on a glorious and sunny Saturday. Without much formality, the band launched into the Cajun arrangement of “Marie, Marie” that kicks off the recent album. We were on our feet right away, and you could light a small town with the energy the audience and band generated. Powerful doesn’t start to describe it.

Appropriately, Alvin brought things down for moments of somber reflection to acknowledge the absence and passing of Farris. I’ll admit, I blubbered for just a few seconds- it was worse than a Hallmark commercial. Pushing me over the edge were the few bars of “California Bloodlines” Dave sang in honour of Amy as an introduction to “California’s Burning”, bringing to mind not only Farris’s death, but that of the songwriter John Stewart. To be in California, and to be reminded of a true son of that state was just too much for me, and I sat down and teared up. Weird.

But the only burning to be smelled on this day was of the medicinal variety, and sadness was short-lived in this environment. Anyway, the rest of the set was steaming. “Abilene” featured an extended jam and “Boss of the Blues” drew me in to vicariously cruise the bluesy streets of southern California with Dave and Phil. “Potter’s Field” was especially poignant on this day, and the band found a new way to play the blues on “Dry River.” Laurie Lewis really cut loose on the set closer “Que Sera Sera”, tearing up a bit of a hoedown with Alvin on that one.

The surprise of the set? Lisa Pankratz! Wow, she can pound. Really nice. Without doubt, the set of the weekend for me. Everyone sounded at their finest, the band’s energy was very positive, and Christy McWilson only threatened to strangle Dave once.

I stayed at the same stage- listening to the Old 97’s play on the adjoining stage- for the Nick Lowe set to follow. A fine decision, and one that was on my original list of ‘must-sees’. Again, talked to folks about common music interests- including Steve Forbert- and had a fine cookie and coffee to pass the time. Lowe was appearing solo, a bit of a disappointment as I had seen the same in Calgary a few years ago and would have enjoyed a band show. But the calm sophistication of Lowe was a nice palate cleanser after the full-bodied brew that was the Guilty Women.

 By starting the show with “Ragin’ Eyes”, Nick gave me hope that we would hear a few unexpected numbers- perhaps “Time Wounds All Heels” or “Breaking Glass.” Alas, such was not to be as he delivered a solid, well-performed but not especially inspired list of his most familiar numbers. Mood was lighter than last time out, definitely less restrained, and he cracked more than a couple smiles. But the songs were of the expected sort- “What’s Shaking on the Hill,” “Long Limbed Girl”, “Does She Have A Friend”, et al. “Heart” was a nice surprise, but he really needs to retire “All Men Are Liars.” “Cruel to Be Kind” got the sing-a-long treatment, and “The Beast in Me” silenced everyone, as it should.

It was nice to hear “Without Love,” the other song of Nick’s J.R. Cash recorded and one of my personal favourites before he launched into the expected and populist climax of “I Knew the Bride” Staring into the sun, the silhouette that was Nick Lowe concluded with his eternal song- the one that’ll last long after the bride has divorced and she discovers that being cruel is seldom kind; hearing “(What’s So Funny About)” Peace, Love and Understanding” in San Francisco was pretty darn neat for this old man.

Things were starting to cool off a bit, especially in the shade and I wasn’t exactly positive where to go next. I decided to forego the crowd of the Banjo stage- again- and skip Gillian Welch in favour of Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. With the best corn dog I’ve ever eaten quickly devoured, and in fine company with Al and his gal Susan, I sat back to enjoy classic country music without worrying about analyzing every nuance.

Some old (“Tempted”), some borrowed (a Buck Owens- Bakersfield instrumental that some may have recognized as “Buckaroo” but that I’m just guessing at, “Long Black Veil”), something blue (“California Blues”), and very little new, Marty and his boys did themselves proud. A strong, unpretentious set highlighted by acoustic gospel vocal tunes such as “Working on a Building” and “A Little Talk with Jesus”, the Osborne Brothers’ “Bluegrass Express”, and a Carteresque guitar instrumental.

By this time, even a Canadian was getting cold, and I needed to move on, and finally gave in to the calling of the Banjo Stage for Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes. That this festival’s biggest and most crowded stage hosts the most traditional bluegrass acts lends this fest a giant heap of credibility. The festival features the gamut of roots and Americana sounds (well, almost- more on that in a moment), and I’m sure would draw even more people if the bluegrass aspect was played down a bit. But, true to their roots, mainstream, progressive, traditional, and contemporary bluegrass acts play to an audience that possibly surpasses 20 000 at this one stage alone. I missed Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, Skaggs, Dry Branch, and others who played the stage earlier in the day, but managed to catch much of the Earle set. I’m glad I did.

I had a decent sightline from the side of the stage, away from the hordes, and the sound was still decent. The blowing wind was numbing fingers on stage (and off, for that matter), leading Earle to quip, “I can’t feel them, but it sounds good.” The set wasn’t particularly tight, hardly surprising given the conditions, but I’m glad I can check off the Bluegrass Dukes on my list of Bands to See. This was a particularly charged set of Dukes- O’Brien on mando, Darrell Scott on banjo and such, with Dennis Crouch (bass) and Casey Driessen (fiddle). “Sin City” sounded especially nice, as did “The Hometown Blues”, complete with familiar story about square-headed cowboys named Otto.

They did “White Frieghtliner Blues” and a few songs from the bluegrass album like “Texas Eagle” and “Yours Forever Blue.” Darkness was moving in, and I still had to walk back to the hotel, so I started off on perhaps the second longest walk of my life. Well worth it, though. A terrific day.

A couple random thoughts. Everyone has a dog, and they all come to the festival. Where I come from, dogs don’t go to festivals. It was a nice touch to see all the pets, and several were absolutely gorgeous animals. All appeared to be well-behaved, save the one who bit me! Seriously, all these well behaved, mannerly and docile dogs, and one little yapper jumps out at me and grabs my leg! Fortunately, he/she caught mostly jeans, but I felt its teeth on my leg. Gave my old heart a jump, for sure. The owners were blissfully inattentive and quite taken back that their little Foo-Foo would do such a thing.

For a cosmopolitan city, the festival is very white- both in audience and music. Race doesn’t really enter my thoughts too often, but it was pretty apparent that the weekend lacked colour. True, I didn’t exactly go out on a limb, listening to more than a few aging white guys, but I know my wife would have appreciated more world and blues music; heck, she may have even stayed around for a little while. And yes, Mavis, Allen Toussaint, and others were on the bill- but it still seemed fairly pale.

The festival merch was a bit sparse, with only t-shirts, posters, and blankets on offer. I was hoping to buy a button-down denim or black shirt, but such was not to be found. Both of the major Alberta festivals have extensive merchandise for sale, and I’m surprised HSB doesn’t take advantage of this revenue stream, while fully aware cash flow isn’t a factor here.

The port-o-potties were gross. I’m so glad I’m a man and don’t need to sit to urinate. Come on, with a 1.5 million (or whatever) budget, get the toilets pumped out over night.

Finally, I was shocked at how laid back everything was, for the most part. Little jostling for position, very few folks apparently losing their bearings- the whole festival had a real positive vibe. Even with so many people and being in a foreign land, I felt comfortable leaving my backpack unattended while moving about the stage areas. The whole festival had a very calm mood associated with it. I wonder why?

We needed to catch a late afternoon flight back home, so I knew I would only be able to take in three acts of the Sunday, but I knew which they would be- Darrell Scott, Hazel Dickens, and Doc Watson, all at the Banjo Stage.

Under a warming Northern California sky, the final day of HSB9 opened with the Darrell Scott Band. Having arrived well early, I was able to find a small spot amongst the mammoth and largely abandoned tarps covering the front of the stage area. With Casey, Tim, Bryn and Matt Flinner, Scott delivered a scorching 6-song, 40-minute set.

“Family Tree” was dusted off for a fine performance. On Paul Simon’s “American Tune” Scott again demonstrated his prowess, alternating powerful and rhythmic strumming with carefully chosen, flat-picked notes. A song I don’t remember having previously heard, maybe called “Long Wide Open Road,” featured a great, star-crossed line- “While I was looking for forever, she was looking for the door.”

Flinner did some nice work low on the fret board during “A Memory Like Mine;” the song had a real jam feel with everyone taking the opportunity for extended breaks, Driessen most impressively working the low register. The too-short set concluded with “Long Time Gone.” Time well spent.

Hazel Dickens, truly supported by a cast of trusted sidemen, was who I really wanted to see on this day, and that is no knock against Doc. But Hazel Dickens just makes my bluegrass engine purr. I love her voice, and even knowing the voice isn’t what it once was, it doesn’t hardly matter. She can flat out sing.

Called the Heart and Soul of the festival by its benefactor Warren Hellman, Hazel struggled a bit to find her voice on “Things in Life”, but rounded into form by the time she concluded “Aragon Mill.” “Mannington Mine” was performed, as was the similarly themed “America’s Poor.” (And I tripped over a wee bit on the ‘net that mentions these songs and puts Hellman’s contributions to the festival in a less positive context: http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=2528)

To ‘appease’ Dudley Connell, Hazel allowed him to sing the Stanley Brothers song “Lonesome Without You.” “Jack and May” had Dudley singing with Hazel, and Marshall Wilborn adding additional harmony. “Mama’s Hand,” “Love Me or Leave Me Alone,” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” were also performed.

Hazel also delivered the line of the weekend when she deadpanned- “I smell pot- someone’s smoking. Shame on you.” A few beats later adding, “You got to pass that around!”

When one considers the esteem in which Hazel Dickens is most obviously held at HSB, and judging from the size of her attentive audience it is considerable, it is hard to fathom why she has yet been made a member of the IBMA Hall of Fame. (Yes, I’ve flogged this old horse before, but I will continue to do so until there is some evidence of someone listening.) Could it be that this collection of liberal, wheat-germ eating, pot smokin’ hippy wannabes and their brethren of the Bay Area are more attuned to the musical contributions made by Hazel Dickens than are those who make such decisions on behalf of the bluegrass industry? I exaggerate, of course, but Hazel remains on the outside looking in at her industry’s highest honour while year after year the male (and largely dead) are recognized. All deserving, I’m sure- but really, there is no rush to get some of these names on the wall as their time has (literally) passed.

She has been a groundbreaking bluegrass performer for nigh on fifty years, and with each year that passes we (the bluegrass community) miss an opportunity to bestow upon her the honour she deserves. Her performance at HSB9 gave ample evidence that she remains a vital component of today’s bluegrass scene. Hazel didn’t perform a dozen or more songs I would have loved to have heard, but what she did perform was stellar, even when it wasn’t.

Also appearing with Hazel was Barry Mittenhoff (mandolin), a fiddler I could not recognize, and a banjo player who may have been Jason Burleson, but more likely was someone else.

Finally, my last act at HSB9 was to be Doc Watson, appearing with David Holt. Their three-disc set of interviews and performances is an absolute favourite; while I would have preferred to hear Doc with Jack Lawrence, I wasn’t about to pass up to here Doc and Holt’s homespun music.

The chosen set wasn’t nearly adventurous- “Way Downtown,” “Shady Grove,” “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” and “Stagger Lee” being the first four tunes played. But Doc gave a finger-pickin’ clinic, and Holt’s clawhammer-style of playing does complement Doc well. I was glad to hear Doc perform “Deep River Blues” before I had to leave the park to catch the plane. As I turned away from the stage area, Richard Watson was joining the duo in “Roll On Buddy.”

If considering a weekend away for roots music, one could do worse than giving Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 10 a spin next autumn. I was only able to catch a fraction of the acts I would have loved to hear- heck, I had to pass up The Knitters, Billy Bragg, Rosie Flores, Todd Snider, Del McCoury, and Emmylou Harris, not to mention Booker T and the DBTs, Richie Havens, Billy Joe Shaver, Elizabeth Cook, Robert Earl Keen…

The hard part will be to not allow this festival to overshadow all which follow.

Thanks for spending some time at Fervor Coulee. Donald

2 thoughts on “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Oct 3-4, 2009

  1. Thanks for the report. As an Australian, I read the line up for Hardly Strictly with a dropped jaw. If we get one or two of that calibre performer a year, we’re doing well. Let alone all on the one weekend. Sigh.

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