Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Journal, 10/04/09

by Dakin Hardwick on October 6, 2009

The masses huddled together for warmth, because miss Neko Case is gonna send chills down your spine

The masses huddled together for warmth, because miss Neko Case is gonna send chills down your spine

I have come to the second and final day of my adventure in the lovely Golden Gate Park. I have refilled my water bottle, stocked up on trail mix, and am ready for music.

This day¬†already feels a bit different from the previous day. It’s still very crowded, but it’s noticeably easier to navigate. I can’t quite tell if fewer people came, or if people are spread out better. It might just be that people have the bearings down, because the crowd is moving a bit better.

Anyways, on with the show:

Billy Bragg

billy bragg

Billy Bragg has become a bit of a Hardly Strictly mainstay of sorts. For the unfamiliar, he’s what would happen if Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer were able to procreate. He’s very politically oriented, and is not afraid to show it. He spoke of health care reform and gay marriage, and spoke very intelligently about both subjects. Nonetheless, he also was well aware of the fact that he was there to entertain, and performed his songs, primarily solo electric, although he pulled out an acoustic guitar for a song that was probably called “O Freedom” that was inspired by Richie Havens.

In addition to being an intelligent believer in humanity and an excellent singer/songwriter, this early afternoon performance also showcased Bragg’s great ability as a comedian. He discussed his experience in Union Square talking with a member of a marching band made of Roman soldiers, he mentioned the previous day’s “Love Parade” and how it inspired him to dance around in his underwear all day, and spent many a moment musing about the different meanings of the word “Teabag.” There are a lot more than one might think.

Doc Watson

doc watson

Somehow, with this incredible bill of great bluegrass veterans, Doc Watson was the only of these I managed to catch. Watson is 86 years old, and has been blind for over 85 of them. His voice is withered in the way that a folk singer in his eighties should sound: it cracked just a little bit, but was still a smooth tenor sound.

He performed an especially emotional rendition of the song “Sitting On Top Of The World,” where he told a story of how he helped his disabled sister pick cherries from a cherry tree by helping her in a bucket, and pulling her up. (Remember, this a blind boy in the story.) He said that it she said it was one of the most amazing feelings of her life to be in the cherry tree.

Doc Watson is definitely the real deal, and I hope he plays for many more years to come.

Alan Toussaint

alan t

Alan Toussaint is a piano player from New Orleans who has experienced a bit of a career renaissance as of late, primarily due to a record of duets recorded with Elvis Costello in 2006.

His set was super high energy, giving the only performance I’ve seen all weekend where absolutely nobody was sitting down. I started out watching from the back on a hill, and was amazed by the energy of both the crowd and Toussaint. I didn’t think I was familiar with his work, but a lot of what he played were songs that I have known my entire life. He did “Get Out Of My Life Woman,” “Southern Nights,” “Working In A Coalmine,” and a plethora of other songs that have become rock ‘n roll standards.

His back up band was made entirely of New Orleans musicians: he had a sax player, a bassist, a guitarist, and two percussionists. All of them were highly skilled in their own right and were able to keep up with a band leader that insisted that there was no air between songs. He just kept pulling them out, and even played about ten minutes longer than his allotted set time, not that anybody seemed to mind at all.

Mavis Staples

mavis

Mavis Staples, of the legendary Staples Singers, is a close friend of Bob Dylan and one of the originators of rock ‘n roll. She came out singing a thunderous version of the Buffalo Springfield song “For What Its’s Worth,” backed by a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, and 3 back up singers, doing a fine job of originating the original Staples singers. (Sister Yvonne Staples was one of her back up singers.)

Her set leaned pretty heavy on gospel numbers; considering it was a Sunday afternoon, it was appropriate. Her voice was thunderous. During a number where she was just accompanied by her guitarist, she dropped the microphone and filled the Marx Meadow with her voice, without amplification.

She can also tell a pretty good story. She spoke about the time she went to church one day, and her father took her to meet the preacher, and said that her father thought he “had some pretty good things to say, and I’d like to ask him if we can sing it.” The church was Ebedezer Baptist Church, and the preacher was Martin Luther King, Jr. She then sang a song that she introduced as Dr King’s favorite song, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” which she sang as if the future of the world depended on her to sing it to safety. It was intense. Her voice sent chills down my spine.

Neko Case

neko

So, when I said that Steve Martin had the biggest crowd of the weekend, that is still true, but I think Neko Case came in a close second. And by close, I mean that their may have been five fewer people watching her. The grove was packed.

Despite being in town to promote a recent record, her set was pretty evenly distributed between tracks off Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and Middle Cyclone. Her voice was perfect, as usual, and seemed especially giddy about playing this festival. She was really happy about all the dogs in the crowd, mentioning them between almost every song.

Despite her good spirits, she was actually a bit less talkative than in recent previous appearances. She focused on the music, which was glorious and haunting. As the sun went down behind her and band, not only did it add to the spooky quality of her music, but also helped illuminate her beautiful red hair.

She closed her set with a cover of the late Ellie Greenwich’s song “Train From Kansas City,” originally recorded by the Shang-ri La’s. It was a pleasant tribute to a great songwriter that passed away earlier this summer, but did it without belaboring the point that she recently passed away.

Neko Case setlist:

Things that Scare Me
Maybe Sparrow
People Got A Lotta Nerve
Fever
Hold on Hold on
I’m An Animal
Middle Cyclone
The Pharoahs
Red Tide
The Tigers Have Spoken
Dont Forget Me
Teenage Feelin
This Tornado Loves you
Vengeance is Sleeping
Train From Kansas City

Well, special thanks once again to Warren Hellman, the man that single-handedly pays for this show.

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Gordon Elgart October 6, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I thought your Neko crush wasn't going to come through in this article, and then you said “beautiful red hair.” Gotcha!

Dakin October 6, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Actually, given the choice, my crush is currently on Kelly Hogan, her back up singer…

Caroline October 6, 2009 at 5:50 pm

She didn't actually do any songs off of Furnace Room Lullaby.

Dakin October 6, 2009 at 8:03 pm

You are right. I fooled myself in to thinking Maybe Sparrow was from that record.

Richard Salzman October 7, 2009 at 12:11 pm

There's no one thing that makes Hardly Strictly my favorite event of the year. Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadows is a beautiful venue, and the early October weather it just to my taste. It's also hard to pick a favorite moment, when there are so many highly gifted musicians, singers with the voice of angles, and poet songwriters, performing and then, knowing that no mater which one you are having the divine pleasure to be listening to at any given moment, there are five other equally blissful moments happening at each of the other five stages. I will say that having the full moon raise behind Emilylou Harris as she sang Shores of White Sand was rather majestic, but maybe the most psychedelic moment was about an hour earlier when Warren Hellman (A prince among men, possibly a saint)) took to the stage to pay his respects to Emilylou who was received her much deserved honorary degree from U.C. Berkeley, as well as to thank Dawn Holliday and all of the people that make the festival possible, including us for attending year after year, and to generally acknowledge how unbelievably special HSBG is, when just on queue, three large geese flew up from behind him, over his podium, and off into the western twilight. Very impressive.
John Prine and Lyle Lovett, can both be very witty I always laugh at some of their songs, but this was the first time I had heard, “Sweet tooth” by Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welsh (I believe it's adapted from Mississippi John Hurt's “Candyman”), and that, was the hardest I laughed all weekend.
Great show. See you next Oct 1, 2nd and 3rd.

Yes, it is the best music festival ever, but it could be even better:
Here's my opinions on two issues and a suggestion.

1) People horde large swaths of prime real-estate (some at multiple venues).
Blocking out enough space early for you, all of your friends, their chairs and all of their other stuff is fine with me, but why do you also need another 10 or 20 square feet, which sits empty for the entire day, but which you then treat it as your private property?
Please only take (block out with blankets or traps) as much room as you think will actually be able to occupy, and/or, share your extra space, when it's not in use.

2) Music in primary an audio event. I plan all year and then drive 300 miles to hear a performance, which is only taking place in this one little spot in this huge park, at this one very moment. A stage has been set up just to allow us to hear this performance, and almost everyone around me is there for that same reason, and right then, right at this very moment that we have all worked so hard to experience (did I mention that music is primarily an audio event?), there are people having conversations, which of course requires them to speak loud enough to be heard over the music. Even if you don't respect the rest of us, how about just showing some respect for the performer?

Personally, I can work around the first issue, but the last one is a real problem. I have developed some very effective and mostly non confrontational methods for dealing with talkers (and many people end up thanking me, as they were just being forgetful, and wanted to hear it themselves), but there are just so many of them.

What if there were signs on the way in:
“please limit talking during performance”

Or an announcement from the stage?

You wouldn't think you would have to explain something so obvious, but…

Gary Mattingly October 7, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I agree with both of the above – more often than not people with large tarps take up more room than they need and some are very territorial. Ditto with the talking. I was with someone once who thought their conversation was far more interesting than the music. I could see other people were being disturbed. I finally just left the area. He followed and continued talking. This is one reason I try to go by myself. I didn't go this year. The crowds just keep getting bigger every year. I must also note that I'm a little annoyed because many of the people haven't a clue who they are listening to. They're just their for their amusement and the afternoon. I go there being aware of almost all of the groups and checking out the ones I don't know before I go. Sorry if that makes me sound like a snob but the people who are usually there just for an afternoon outing are the same ones talking and only half-listening to the music and taking up space.

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