Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2013
Well HSB 13 has come and gone and here are some reflections on my personal highlights.
This weekend had the best weather ever for the festival and the crowds came out to enjoy it. We arrived midday on Friday and the Banjo stage audience area was almost filled. That meant waiting to see Bonnie Raitt headline her first HSB would be like watching a speck of dust. We opted for the less populated Arrow stage to see Low, Father John Misty, and Calexico.
Low is broody group of guys from Duluth who sound like they composed their songs during some really cold weather. I had heard a couple of their songs on Robert Plant’s last album, Band of Joy. They are kind of an alt-country Joy Division, droning on, but with sweet harmonies. Nice, but not easy listening.
Father John Misty is a solo performer who sat on a chair behind a giant cutout of an iphone. Brilliant way to get an audience fixated by bright and shiny things to pay attention. His cynical lyrics kept the crowd chuckling to his “weird ass songs about weird ass experiences”.
Calexico was up next and didn’t disappoint. Their sound is like a spaghetti western soundtrack for a Tarrentino movie. Although their mariachi horns may get them labeled Tex-Mex, they are much more like desert noir. They also have a lot of other latin influences, including Colombian cumbia. We stayed for about two thirds of their set and then wandered over to catch what we could of Bonnie.
We headed up the road above the side of the stage to get as close as we could and were pleasantly surprised that they had side speakers on the stage so the sound from that angle was great. Being tall is a great advantage at these events and I was able to get a good view despite being one of more than 50 thousand.
Bonnie sounded great and seemed thrilled to be there. She was the first headliner of many hometown favorites to appear and they all stole the show in my humble opinion.
We headed out before the end of her set to avoid the rush and as we walked through the Frisbee golf course in the woods towards Fulton St. we caught a little of Conor Oberst being joined onstage by the Swedish girl duo First Aid Kit. Too much good stuff all at the same time is about the only criticism you can make of this event.
Saturday was another beautiful day. Although the meadow was mobbed early, we got good seats to see Bettye Lavette at the Towers of Gold stage to start our afternoon. With a voice like gargled razor blades (in a good way), and looking half her age of 70, she ripped through inspired soul covers of the Beatles, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Dolly Parton among others. I’d love to see her in a supper club like Yoshi’s.
Afterwards we found ourselves wandering all over the place to catch snippets of performers while trying to stay in as much shade as possible. At the Rooster stage we caught a bit of Mark Lanegan, whose last album (Imitations) of covers I enjoyed. Today he sounded pretty dour, like Leonard Cohen with a stomachache. We made our way over to the big stage, the Banjo, and caught the more upbeat Tim O’Brien, who often seems to be everywhere at this event. I’ve liked Tim ever since he fronted the bluegrass band Hot Rize and he always does a solid show.
We went back to the Rooster stage to hear Loudon Wainwright III. Although Loudon has put out some great music under the radar in recent years, this set was like an organ recital in an old age home. Complaints about aging and unresolved daddy issues get old fast, so after about three songs in this vein we headed back to the Banjo to catch something called Holler Down the Hollow. I was sure glad we did.
Holler Down the Hollow was an allstar tribute to the HSB masters who have recently passed on, including Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and HSB creator Warren Hellman. With a stellar backing band including Allison Brown, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Steve Earle, Jerry Douglas, Buddy Miller and others, one by one the weekend stars came out to sing a song or two. Emmylou Harris, Peter Rowan, Jim Lauderdale and others came by for this special one time only event. We found a nice shady spot in the woods along the side of the stage, thankful for those speakers pointing our way. Everybody else was out in the hot sun sweating, as Jim Lauderdale said, like “Rush Limbaugh at a Steve Earle concert”.
I wasn’t sure we were going to top that today, but I was wrong. Back at the Star stage local hero Boz Scaggs was starting his set. Last year his Doug Sahm tribute band was the highlight of the weekend for me, but this year it was just vintage Boz. He played a lot of songs off his new Memphis album, channeling his inner Al Green and Mink DeVille. His back up singer (whose name I didn’t catch and can’t find) stole the show with her medley of Sam and Dave and Sly Stone songs. Unlike many of the performers who played great but seemed out of place in the bright daylight, Boz’s smooth urban blues sounded perfect on a dusty late afternoon.
I was festival fried on Saturday night, but after going home and a long shower, we headed out to North Beach on a balmy evening. The sidewalks were packed with tables and there were fireworks over the bay while we had a delicious meal at the old school Italian North Beach Restaurant. We were tired but happy and looking forward to the next day.
Sunday we arrived early to catch the opening show at the Towers of Gold stage of the Allah-Las. I ran out of room on last year’s Best Of Year playlist and they narrowly missed the final cut. This LA band has a real nice retro surf and British invasion sound. Even their stage presence looked lifted from the Ed Sullivan show. Being four good looking young guys helped bring the cute girls to the front of the stage and I would have been thankful for that even though the music was good too.
After their set we headed next door to the Star stage. Now the Star and Towers stage are back to back and the music is staggered so the sound won’t bleed over. The disadvantage is that if you find a good spot you have to wait an hour between sets instead of the 20 minutes like the other stages. However,after walking so much on Saturday we were ready to find good seats up close and settle in for the day. The Star stage seemed like the place to be.
We found the perfect spot about 40 feet from the front left side of the stage on a little hill where we could still see when everybody stood up. First up was Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, a local jam band that is building up a national following. She became an internet sensation when her Youtube version of Hall and Oates “I Can’t Go for That” went viral. She recently has been covering Boz Scaggs’ Lido Shuffle, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that Boz joined them for half the set. Great show and looking forward to the next time they play Phil Lesh’s club Terrapin Crossroads.
We had to keep our great seats so we decided to stay still and wait the hour to the next show. Fortunately they played the neighbor stage through our sound system so we got to hear a great Richard Thompson set like we were in the front row. I was able to stream the live video on my iphone and watch the band. Ain’t technology grand?
After the break Justin Townes Earle came out. Two years ago his set was the highlight of the festival for me, with his father Steve joining him and being backed by Jason Isbell’s band. Today he started out a little sloppy, forgetting the lyrics to the first couple songs and fighting a bad sound mix to boot (unusual since the sound is always superb here). He pulled it together and the new songs sounded fine, but overall a little disappointing for my high expectations.
When the set was over, the music from the neighbor stage started immediately. It was Billy Bragg, the English protest singer. I dread being preached at, but he started with my favorite material from Mermaid Avenue, the Woody Guthrie project he did with Wilco. It turned out to be an enjoyable set (how do the Brits sing like Americans and then when they talk you can barely understand them?).
Next it was Chris Isaak on our stage. Another local hero, he looked the same as when I saw him 30 years ago at the Victoria Theater in the Mission. And he still has the same band, so they’re pretty tight by now. His bass player is Roly Sally who I remember as a folk hippie from upstate NY (Killing the Blues) but now looking like a road hardened Rock n’ Roll veteran. The band was resplendent in black western tuxedos, but it was Chris’s blue rhinestone Nudie suit that stole the sartorial show. Their most recent album is a Sun records tribute, but the set today was songs from their entire songbook. When they got to Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire, even the piano started smoking. Maybe the most fun set of the festival and we made our way home through 750,000 people with a big smile on our faces. To top off the evening, the 49ers were on that night and won in a blow out.
Now its Monday and I plan to spend some time reading other people’s blogs and checking out the video streams on the HSB website to see what I missed. I’m getting too old for this 3 day slog but I’m sure glad I didn’t miss this one. Its been a great 13 years of music.