Gramfest (Joshua Tree, CA)
Gram Parsons was one of those tragic figures who make you think of the old saying, “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. His influence on musicians who followed him is immeasurable. From Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones to Son Volt and the Jayhawks, Parsons’ legacy of Cosmic American Music is embedded in our musical tradition.
Despite all his accomplishments in a life cut short by his over-the-top appetites Parsons has never really received universal recognition beyond a devoted cult following. due to him. In part, that is what makes being able to witness an event like “GramFest ’96” so special.
Held in Parsons’ spiritual homeland of Joshua Tree, California, GramFest was meant to commemorate what would have been Gram’s 50th birthday (which was actually November 5th). He died on September 19, 1973, at age 26, shortly after being found unconscious from a mixture of drugs and drink in Room #8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, just a stone’s throw away from the Hi-Desert Playhouse, where GramFest was held.
During the day, people started filtering in to the little desert town, about 30 miles east of Palm Springs. The festivities included a keynote speech by Ben Fong-Torres, the author of Hickory Wind, a biography of Parsons, and people were invited to perform in an “open-mike” ceremony.
The evening portion consisted of two shows (at 7:30 and 9:30; I attended the second show) featuring artists who have drawn much of their musical inspiration from Parsons. It was a cool and breezy night, with an informal gathering of about 130 people; it was an out-in-the-woods sort of feeling.
The crowd was very amiable and willing to talk about their interest in the “Grievous Angel” while waiting between sets or taking a smoke break. It was a mix of young and old, ranging from the industrially hip to the country cruncher. Overall, everyone was laid-back and happy to be there, like being with relatives during the holidays.
None of the performers were big-name acts, but they delivered sets straight from the heart. The songs ranged from original compositions, to covers Gram influenced, to the obligatory Parsons tune. The audience responded warmly to all the offerings with genuine applause. Among those who played were Ray Brandes, the Unknowns, Carl Rusk, and Bird Dog, with a special mini-set by the day’s open-mike “winner”.
The highlights came with the latter part of the show. Dishwater, a San Diego band, delivered an electric country-blues set that brought it all together. They opened with “Cry One More Time”, a sad, wailing Parsons song from GP which also appears on the Gram Parsons Live 1973 with the Fallen Angels album. They also did “She”, also from GP, and delivered a whining version of “Wild Horses”, the Rolling Stones classic so often associated with Parsons.
Paul K & the Weathermen, from Kentucky, followed and kept the groove going with sweet melodies and harrowing vocals by the lead singer. His voice quivered and wailed through some original work and Parsons tunes. They closed their set with another Stones cover, “No Expectations”, which was playfully credited as being “probably written by Gram”, and finally, a fitting rendition of the last song on Parsons’ posthumously released album Grievous Angel, “In My Hour of Darkness”.
Polly Parsons, Gram’s daughter, joined the Calamity Twins (Larry Klug and Rick Hasley) for a closing set that brought the house down. Their offerings of her father’s songs showed that his music is truly for the ages. For someone claiming not to be musically inclined, Polly’s voice flowed with richness and showed range enough to reach those “Emmylou-like” highs. The most memorable numbers were “Return of the Grievous Angel” and a climactic “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes”, which ended with a beautiful a cappella refrain of the last verse. Polly emotionally thanked the crowd and looked up to wish her dad a good night.
While driving back through the dark desert to my hotel, I had a warm glow that I wanted to bottle and preserve. GramFest was one of those little gatherings that seem as though it never really happened, although one you won’t soon forget. Gram Parsons was a man who thrived on singing about the sorrow of broken hearts and nostalgia. His memory was well represented this evening.