Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2012: A First Class Tribute To Fading and Fallen Legends
When my wife and I arrived at the Great American Music Hall Friday night on October 5th, I should have read more into the marquee. It read “Nick Lowe + The Super Friends of Jesse Winchester.” The line waiting to get in for the show was buzzing about Jesse’s illness and the fact he was being replaced by Elvis Costello, Buddy Miller and other legends who were appearing at Hardly Strictly over the weekend. While waiting in line two paramedics vans and a fire engine came racing up with lights flashing and sirens blazing. A guy about my age was laying on the sidewalk while paramedics tried to get his heart jump started again. Turns out that the unfortunate concert attendee was a Gary Tashman, age 69, who to those who knew him was ” a great music fan who had grown up in Baltimore sneaking into African American nightclubs” That could have described my venture into roots music in the Bay Area.
The show at the Great American Music Hall was up to its usual standards. Part of going to Hardly Strictly, much like the Jazz and Heritage Festival, is taking in what’s going on at night around town. Usually there is an benefit for the Richard De Lone Special Housing Project the Friday night before and customarily it involves Elvis Costello in some way. The association dates back to the 70s when Austin De Lone moved from England to Mill Valley and started a band called Clover that wound up backing Elvis Costello on his debut Nick Lowe produced album, “My Aim is True.” This year I could only find the Nick Lowe concert which was not the usual fundraiser so I thought to myself this must be the big all star show and bought my tickets. Earlier in the week I had been contacted by a prominent public relations person to take a tour of a new venue called Preservation Hall West at the Chapel. It turns out that the Chapel was where all the action was this year including the Austin Richard De Lone benefit for those with Prader-Willi Syndrom.
I’ve blogged about Hardly Strictly for the past three years thanks to No Depression. This year rather than just focus on the groups that I’m really interested in or who I’ve covered in the past, I wanted to give No Depression readers a feel for what goes on during Hardly Strictly Bluegrass weekend each year around the City and take in some a few groups who are not on my radar. The super friends of Jesse Winchester turned out to be a stellar lineup. Kieran Kane on guitar and banjo and his son on a single bass drum opened with two outstanding songs followed by Buddy Miller, Elvis Costello and Jerry Douglas. I had no idea that Jesse Winchester had written “A Showman’s Life” and Buddy delivered his version like he was channeling Solomon Burke. Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson played a few songs in between Kieran and the final trio. I’m a huge Guy Clark fan and was surprised to see how much he had aged since last year. Clark mentioned that he was “probably sicker than Jesse” and started to cough. I took in a few Guy and Verlon songs at HSB the next day and watched as Guy ambled towards the stage on a cane. Guy Clark could sing the phone book and it would move most listeners and if anything, like a good whiskey, his voice sounded just right for the songs.
Nick Lowe came out and announced that he was going to sing a set of songs spanning his career. Nick Lowe solo is something to see. I noticed that he uses different settings on his microphone depending on the modulation he wants from his voice. He opened with “Stoplight Roses” which sounded like a great Nick Lowe song…better than I imagined from the CD. Throughout the night he touched on his new CD singing “House for Sale”, “Checkout Time” and “Sensitive Man.” I would guesstimate that the mean age of the audience was in the 50’s but it was a fairly rowdy 50’s yelling out “brilliant”, “remarkable” and “you’re too cool” throughout the evening. Lowe has evolved over the years into a soulful British version of Frank Sinatra, a crooner who sings songs about betrayal, heartbreak and revenge, many of his selections sung with a tongue in cheek delivery. I’ve seen Lowe solo many times and for some reason this time he seemed more animated and enunciated words more sarcastically than originally recorded. He did mesmerizing versions of “What’s Shaking on the Hill” “Whats So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding, and “I Live on a Battlefield.” His first encore was ” When I Write the Book” which he introduced as an old Rockpile song and his second and final encore was “Alison” in a nod to his friend and collaborator Elvis Costello. I don’ t think too many people were complaining at the end of the evening although many were concerned about Winchester’s health.
Brandt Williams, the photographer that I work with, and I agreed to get over to Golden Gate Park early Saturday morning. It was a beautiful, clear Fall day and the media had been warning about “Carmageddon” all week. There were Blue Angles flying overhead. The America’s Cup preliminary races on the Bay, The Giants and A’s in the playoffs. Parades and foot races happening all over the City. Not to mention Cal and Stanford football games going on in Berkeley and Palo Alto. We decided it was appropriate to kick off this years Hardly Strictly by starting with the Go to Hell Man Clan at the Rooster Stage in Marx Meadow. This marked the debut of the Hellman family at Hardly Strictly (they played their father’s/grandfather’s Memorial last year) made up of children and grandchildren of Warren Hellman. Two things struck me: one was that the harmonies and the musicianship were very good and secondly its amazing to me that Warren passed down his love of old time string banjo music to his family. The Go To Hell Man Clan was joined by Warren’s band The Wronglers which includes Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Ron Thomason. The children, grandchildren, Jimmie Dale and Ron launched into what would continue to be a litany of tributes from all the five stages to Warren Hellman over the weekend. To a musician they couldn’t say enough for what Warren has done and will continue to do underwriting this annual three day gift to the City of San Francisco and lovers of roots American music. The most moving moment was when Warren’s daughter recounted being with him during his final days and playing the fiddle lament “Ashokan Farewell”
We wandered over to the Banjo Stage to see what the Alison Brown Quartet featuring Stuart Duncan was all about. The photographer that I was working with has an up and coming bluegrass band and was explaining the different picking styles. Alison Brown performed an all instrumental set using her picking style that I would describe as smooth jazz-grass. I was informed that the proper term is “New Grass”. Her command of the banjo and the quality of her backup band was evident captured the mood of the day that picture perfect morning.
We went back and caught a couple of songs from Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson and then headed back to the Banjo Stage to catch Buddy Miller’s set. If Elvis is like the mayor of HSB, Buddy is the all utility player and he would guest with a number of performers including the traditional final set from Emmylou Harris. His band opened with “There’s A Higher Power”. He rotated guest performers in with each song including Jim Lauderdale on two songs from their new cd including “I Lost the Job of Loving You” and a second line New Orleans song ” Down South in New Orleans”. Buddy’s band has taken a cue from his time in Band of Joy and puts out a big guitar sound with Robert Plant, Patti Griffin and Emmylou Harris filling in the Julie Miller harmonies on a few songs. Buddy sang one new ballad written by Julie entitled “It Hurts Me” which in my estimation will be one of the outstanding songs on his new cd.
We cut Buddy’s set short and headed over to the Star Stage to catch Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones. I’ve written a number of reviews about Dave and his band for No Depression. Its no secret that if Dave were appearing alone in Golden Gate Park, I’d be out there. After playing over 200 gigs a year on the road, his band is as tight as ever. He opened with Harlan County Line which came at the audience with a “take no prisoners” assualt. Lisa Pankowitz probably performed the only drum solo of the weekend and it was quite something to see. Ginger Baker would have been proud. Dave introduced a surprise appearance by his brother Phil after telling the story how Phil flat lined in Spain and was saved by a Spanish nurse pounding on his chest to bring him back to live. Phil sang “What’s Up With My Brother” and “Maria Maria” in Spanish in honor of the nurse who saved his life. Phil looked extremely thin and winced while pulling a guitar over his head but his voice was as strong as ever. Dave opened his set by announcing that Nick Curran, a remarkable Los Angeles blues guitar player and collaborator with his brother Phil, had died the week before from oral cancer.
We left the Star Stage and caught a few of the star studded performances at the Banjo Stage honoring the founding fathers; Warren Hellman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson more or less the heart and soul of Hardly Strictly and who had recently passed away. That’s part of the exhilaration of Hardly Strictly, leaving a flat out rip your head off set from Dave Alvin to take in a traditional bluegrass acoustic set from Buddy Miller, or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who opened with a New Orleans funeral song). Emmylou Harris closed the set with “The Long Journey” which she dedicated to Warren. We went from the Banjo Stage to the Porch Stage just in time to catch Allison Moorer performing an A Capella version of “A Change is Gonna Come” which raised the hair on the back of my neck. Truly memorable. From there we wandered over to the Rooster Stage to see a solo acoustic performance by Patty Griffin. If you were lucky like we were to be close to the stage, Patty sounded great. If you were further back in the large crowd I heard complaints about noise and not being able to hear her sing. She was joined for a few duets by her husband Robert Plant and I don’t think she’s ever sung a bad note in her life.
Sunday was another embarrassment of riches with decisions to be made. I don’t have enough space to go into all the details for each performance that we attended throughout the day. I really wanted to give you a feel for what goes on while trying to schedule visiting five stages, eighty eight acts over two days. The weather on Sunday was a bit cooler and the crowds this year were estimated to be down as much as 20% over previous years – probably due to the traffic scares and everything else going on in the City. The primary act I was interested in taking in was Doug Sahm’s Phantom Playboys, organized by Boz Scaggs and featuring songs sung by Steve Earle, Delbert McClinton, Jimmie Vaughn, and Dave Alvin, the honorary Texan by way of Los Angeles. Scaggs pulled together an all-star band complete with horns and a peddle steel guitar player in an effort to cover the eclectic range of music that made Doug Sahm a national treasure. Years ago I heard that Doug and Flaco Jimenez were signing records at Village Music across the Bay in Mill Valley. I packed my kids in the car (at the time they were age 6 and 8) and took them to meet these two legends. At the Sunday show Delbert McClinton sang “Money over Love” that rocked; Dave Alvin sung a country-ish “Dynamite Woman” with Boz singing harmonies, Steve Earle sang Sahm’s first hit “She’s About a Mover”. The Sir Douglas Quintet was originally promoted as a new British Invasion band and appeared as shadows on the cover of their first album. Scagg’s Phantom Playboys lived up to their billing and the set was outstanding.
I missed Patti Smith the last time she appeared at Hardly Strictly and wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Her set opened with “Fuji” and ran through “April Fool”, “Ghost”, “Beneath the Southern Cross” , “Pissing in the River”, and concluded with “People Have the Power” and” Gloria”. Her band was solid and Patti live surpassed all the hype I’ve heard over the years. I particularly liked how she finished off “Gloria” buy spelling out “P-u-s-s-y R-i-o-t.” I also dropped in on Moonalice early in the day. If you like the Grateful Dead, this band captures the spirit of a Dead performance..actually remarkably good. I finished off this year the traditional way, paying homage to Warren by attending Emmylou’s heartfelt guest filled closing set.
The spirit of Warren and the founding fathers were everywhere this year from the stage sets to fences with blown up pictures of Warren the musician, the businessman, the Ride and Tie and Western States athlete and many warm pictures with his family. The faces of Warren, Hazel Dickens, Earl Scruggs, and Doc Watson adorned the stage backdrops. And the musicians who played all paid homage and played songs from these legends songbooks. This year would have to be called an unqualified success on a par with an other Hardly Strictly Bluegrass event; however it will be interesting to see how long this massive undertaking can be replicated in the future without the vision, financial support and commitment of Warren Hellman
This article is dedicated to George Williams, Brandt Williams father, who passed away the weekend of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this year.