Hardly Strictly – Friday, October 1st: Their Aim Is True
I’ve seen some great weekends in San Francisco. Weekends where you can’t decide what to do there’s so much going on. This weekend may raise the bar. The San Francisco Giants were one game away from winning their division. There’s the Orsay Exhibit at the De Young Museusm and there are600,000 people streaming into Golden Gate Park over three days for one of the most incredible outdoor music festivals in the United States. What started ten years ago as Strictly Bluegrass has become Hardly Strictly Bluegrass thanks to philanthropist, investment banker, ultra distance runner and horseman and banjo player in the Wrongers, Warren Hellman. A one million dollar a year gift to the City.
Bonnie Simmons, local Bay Area radio personality legend from the KSAN days, had Steve Earle on her radio show the other night and they were talking about Hardly Strictly. Earle has played nine out of the ten years and says he won’t miss another year. Bonnie Simmons is involved with booking acts for Hardly Strictly each year. Earle said on her show the other night “the incredible thing is that the three day event is free for everybody except Warren.” Simmons added “its like going to a gourmet restaurant, getting more incredible food than you can eat and having one person raise his hand and say ‘check please'” . Whatever it is it keeps getting bigger and better. This year there are six stages starting at 11:00 each day and featuring four to six acts per stage.
Friday afternoon was bigger than before featuring the venerable Ralph Stanely & the Clinch Mountain Boys, The Waybacks who will be a feature interview in subsequent blogs, the subdudes, Patty Griffin, T Bone Burnett and a one time group called the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue comprised of Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Scaggs has been putting the one off super groups together for the past couple of years…last year his band included James Cotten and Jimmy Vaughn.
For those who didn’t get enough music at the Park, the Hardly Strictly weekend sponsored a $125 concert to raise money for the Richard de Lone Special Housing Project which provides state-of-the-art living facilities for adults and children living with Prader Willi syndrome – a condition where those who suffer are perpetually hungry. The event was cast as Elvis sings Lowe, Lowe Sings Elvis..two great artists who started out together singing each others songbook. When I spoke with Nick Lowe on Sunday he said that “Elvis was very ‘affecting’ and I really didn’t know if it would work…but it did.” Some would argue that it did more than just work..the exchange produced a memorable evening.
The two took the stage and for an hour and a half and traded off on about twenty songs. Elvis started with a rocking version of Nick’s “Here Comes the Weekend” followed by Elvis singing “When I Write the Book”. Then it was Lowe’s turn coming back with an old Costello song “Home is Anywhere you Hang Your Head.”. The two were very polite in odd display of British manner…two horn rimmed artists digging into each others great songbooks. Lowe was especially deferential to Costello talking about how he use to marvel at watching him make records and work with artists.
Because the two of them have worked together and Elvis has sung Lowe’s songs including one he made quite well known, the exchange was seamless and you could almost see how these songs would have been at home in either catalog. I would argue that Lowe approached his friend’s songs with more reserve and nuance where Costello really dug into the soulful side of Lowe’s songs. In my opinion, Lowe’s songbook shined but Elvis’s delivery that night was spectacular. Two highlights featuring Costello were “Don’t Lose Your Grip on Love” which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Southern Soul record and a slower paced “Cruel to Be Kind” which also came across more passionate.
Lowe sang some of Costello’s more familiar material including “Mystery Dance” “Poison Rose” and a reworked but equally effective version of ” Alison.” The two closed with the obvious choice ” What’s so Funny about Peace Love and Understanding.” I’ve seen Lowe sing this incredibly timely song twice before at the Great American Hall: once with the great Geraint Watkins that was haunting and again when Lowe was performing solo.
Seeing Nick Lowe perform with his own band at Hardly Strictly two days later I was struck at how much less reserved he was and comfortable with the songs he wrote. He did an incredible take on “When I Write the Book” maybe not as RnBish as Costello’s approach but very effective and a great “What’s so Funny About Peace Love and Understanding.” Lowe is a crowd favorite at this event and Elvis is one of Warren Hellman’s appointed foreign dignitaries each year.
I have to add a few words about the house band for the Great American Music Hall event. The band took a soul-a-billy approach to each song and gave the set list their own combined magic. Bill Kirchen was dominant on guitar with his distinctive baritone twang.
Kirchen has backed Elvis at previous Hardly Strictly gigs with his Hammers of the Honky Tonk Gods group. Bob Andrews on piano is an old Lowe alumnus and took the lead vocals on two songs including one of Lowe’s best known, “I love the Sound of Breaking Glass.” I actually thought that the two Andrews vocal leads were highlights for the set that I saw. Austin de Lone rounded out the group on organ, Paul Revell (Joe Louis Walker among other blues and rock greats) on drums, Ruth Davies played stand up bass and to add to the soul aspect of some songs, Derek Huston was on baritone sax. I can’t imagine that there was a ton of preparation for these two rare appearances, but it seemed like this band had played together for years.
It was a very special and exciting way to kick off my Hardly Strictly weekend and I might add the Giants won their division. Exuberance was in the air.