Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Journal, 10/03/09

by Dakin Hardwick on October 4, 2009

So, this is the kind of crowd you get to see a retired amusement park employee play banjo? San Franciscans are weird...

So, this is the kind of crowd you get to see a retired amusement park employee play banjo? San Franciscans are weird...

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is different than most music festivals in several ways. The best thing about it is that it’s free. That might also be it’s biggest downfall, as well. It attracts a lot of people that normally don’t go to shows. The crowd veers a bit older, and they tend to prefer to bring lawn chairs and stay in one place. If you really want to get up close and personal with a big act, you essesntially have to get there at the crack of dawn, stake a place, and hang out. If you go to the show thinking that you can jump stages and get a good spot for everyone, you are really out of luck. The best way to enjoy this festival is to drop most expectations of actually seeing the performer, and jump between stages freely, taking an the smorgasboard of music in little sample sizes. You will end up with a much more eclectic palate, and you will have a much better time.

So, the first act I saw was:

Jon Langford & The Sadies perform Australian Aboriginal Country & Western Songs

Jon Langford is the kind of guy whose legend runs pretty deep in the alt.country circles, coming from the Welsh punk band The Mekons, and later forming The Waco Brothers and the classic alt.country label Bloodshot Records. He wasn’t suppossed to play the show, but Roger Knox, who was set to play some traditional Australian country music got his visa denied, so Langford got The Sadies (in town to back up John Doe the next evening) to do the same set with him. Since I don’t know the songs, and these were punkers playing the music, it was a set of old fashioned cow punk. I enjoyed it, but no songs jumped out at me. Not bad for a hastily put together project, though.

Okkervil River

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Okkervil River played around the corner from Langford & The Sadies right afterwards. They play here an awful lot, generally as an opening act or on a festival such as this. They always sound good, but they’ve been playing the same show for two years straight now. Most of the songs were from the last two records, and, well, it’s time for some new material. Good set, but I just would like to hear something else.  There was a pretty awesome moment when Will Sheff’s mic stand broke, and he kept singing while his mic slowly fell to the floor, not missing a note on his guitar. The keyboardist popped out to fix in, and the the set went on without another hitch.

Steve Martin with The Steep Canyon Rangers

This was the biggest draw of the day. It was also one of the hardest things to actually see. Speedway Meadow was filled with people there to see the great Steve Martin in a rare public performance. His current record of original bluegrass tunes is very good, but not the type of thing that would normally bring out a bigger crowd than Pearl Jam.

We found a spot to the where the sound was good, but visibility was nill. He may have been wearing a white suit with a pork pie hat, but I really don’t know. What I do know is that he is a good musician, and still funny. Not stand up comedian funny, but musician funny, which at times can be a bit funnier. He introduced a song by saying,”All of these songs are originals. I wrote them, and I always write directly from personal experiences. This next song is titled My Masseuse Is Too Chatty.”

He was entertaining, but it was getting kind of uncomfortable to stay put. So, after five songs, it was time to move on.

Old 97’s

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The Old 97’s set was the most amplified set of the day. They played louder and harder than usual, and made it a point to get the folks in lawn chairs up and dancing. Rhett Miller’s strumming arm moves at a pace that no human should be able to do. It looks like his right arm might be double jointed. People seemed to like what they heard, and the crowd swelled.

They started out focusing on the hits. Then, they did a punked up version of Bob Wills’ “Miss Molly,” which, according to bassist Murry Hammond is a song that they used to play in their early days, and were excited to bring it back. They spent the bulk of the set now focused on cover tunes. The brought out Jon Langford back to sing on The Mekons’ classic “Over The Cliff,” complete with more curse words than a Bob Saget concert. They also did Ricky Skaggs’ “Sweet Blue-Eyed Darling,” but the kicker came towards the end of the set. They brought out Exene Cervenka from X to sing “Four-Leaf Clover”, and early song that they rarely play live, and she was fierce. They took that energy straight in to the classic set closer “Time Bomb.”

Legend Of The Illegal Mr Lady

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Legend of The Illegal Mr Lady weren’t on the bill. I was hurrying to go see Dar Williams, Allison Moorer, Steve Earle and Tom Morello finish their songwriters circle. But, along the path, I saw a banjo player and a trumpeter under a tree. I stopped to listen, and it was killer! It was a male/female duo. The banjo player had an aggressive, almost Tom Waits-sounding voice. He sang songs about sadness and beer. The girl provided harmonies and trumpet solos. This may have been the most unique band playing the fest, and they just sort of crashed it. That’s one of the charms with an event like this, it has a great “anything goes” kind of attitude.

Songwriter Circle with Tom Morello, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, and Dar Williams

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So, my distraction made it so I could only check out a little of this set. The Rooster Stage (in Marx Meadow, which Tom Morello made a point of that distinction) was packed. I stood on the outskirts, and allowed myself to listen a bit. Allison Moorer was singing “Alabama Song,” which is a beautiful song in it’s own right, but was amazing in this reading. Dar Williams sang her song, “Rest My Head.” Tom Morello sang his Nightwatchmen song, “The Fabled City.” Steve Earl stayed quiet. He didn’t seem in to it. They then played “This Land Is Your Land,” complete with Morello’s favorite pro-socialism verse. Good, but nothing special from this project. It seemed less like a collaboration, and more like four people taking turns playing songs.

The Duhks

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So, my original intention was to watch 15 minutes of The Duhks, and then go around go check out Gillian Welch. I ended up not following my own plan. I showed up at The Porch Stage, expecting them to already be playing, and nobody is watching them, and the band is just fiddling with stuff. My first thought is that they are done playing. As I start to leave, the mc comes on stage, and introduces them. I decided to stay a bit. They played an instrumental, vaguely celtic number. It’s alright, but I’m not that excited yet. I think about leaving again. Then, they play their second song. Within 30 seconds, I’m hugging the stage.

The piece is nearly indescribable, but since my job is music journalist, I will try to. I don’t want to get fired. And I want you to see this band. It’s in French. The piece is all rhythm and harmonies. It’s a little bit African, and a little bit latin. It’s practically a merengue song. Next song was a straight up R&B number. It was played on banjo and fiddle, but it was pure soul music. Every single song was a new experiment in music, but never sounded like “experimental music.” Lead singer Sarah Dugess owned the smallish stage, and played it like a stadium. Fiddle player Tania Elizabeth ripped shredded as if she were the Jimmy Page of her field, if Jimmy Page was a woman several decades younger that looked like a punk rock librarian. Banjo player Leonard Podolak handled most of the talking, and sang harmony vocals nicely as well. His stage presence was mind blowing!

They kept moving all over the place. They played a Fela Kuti-esque number. They played some pure pop. They closed with the most ridiculously fast paced cover of Whole Lotta Love that Zepplin in their prime couldn’t pull off.

Well, that was Saturday in a nutshell. Check back tomorrow for my thoughts on Sunday. Oh yeah, I didn’t see Gillian Welch. If you were watching The Duhks, you wouldn’t either.

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