HARDLY STRICTLY SUNDAY: WOMEN RULE THE DAY
For some reason every time I head out to Hardly Strictly I’m nursing the effects of too much Saturday night . This year, after five weeks of finagling, my photographer, Brandt Williams, and I were able to get a backstage pass through an artist’s agent to interview some of the performers at the Rooster Stage for No Depression. The process was more difficult than the Salahi’s trying to crash a White House dinner.
Hardly Strictly is an endurance event. Each day there are four to seven performers appearing on six stages. The estimated attendance over the three day free event is 600,000 people. The patron saint of Hardly Strictly is Warren Hellman, a 76 year old financial banker who happens to have a passion for the banjo and bluegrass music. I’ve known Warren over the years as a loyal philanthropist who has been a loyal supporter to the University of California, among many other causes, and as a fierce ultra distance runner and horseman who has competed in the Levi Ride and Tie for many years and the Western States 100 foot race. There’s a story about Warren that when he is approached by musicians who ask if they can play his festival, he hands them a business card and says “this is the woman who books the acts each year, give her a call” At the bottom of the card is a line that reads “turn this card over”. The single sentence on the reverse side reads “Warren has no authority”. Everybody dines for free and Warren picks up the $1 million check at the end of the three days.
You can’t see everything you want to see and hear and the crowds on Sunday swell to the largest of the three day event. Emmylou Harris traditionally closes out Sunday night and the crowd is a sea of people stretching from the front of the Banjo Stage as far as the eye can see out towards the Pacific.
This year marked the tenth anniversary of this little music party that Warren throws each year. It was bigger and more diverse than ever, with Patti Smith on one stage while the venerable Ralph Stanley appeared at the Banjo Stage, 75 year old Hazel Dickens at the same stage on the final day and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at the Rooster Stage. What started out as Strictly Bluegrass became more “Hardly” Strictly when more roots rock oriented groups like Steve Earle and the Dukes, Dave Alvin and the Drive By Truckers were invited to the party.
On Sunday, October 9th we left the East Bay after an evening of showers. I don’t think that there has ever been a single drop of rain over the entire past ten years at this three day concert. Our first thought was that the threat of rain might keep the crowds down this year. It turned out to be a beautiful Fall day and not even a jacket was required until the late afternoon.
Upon arriving to the event early in the morning, an hour before the first act went on, we went to the Rooster Stage to get our credentials for the day. You go through three checkpoints down a narrow gauntlet staffed with very polite volunteers. We got to the final check point and explained that we were there to interview Dave Alvin after his set and needed to pick up or backstage credentials. The Rooster Stage manager enthusiastically replied “Oh man, you’re here with Dave..no problem.” He took out a marker pen and wrote “backstage” on our Friends and Family pass and signed it. That proved to be marginally effective throughout the rest of the day.
My other objective for the day was to take a straw poll as to how many musicians, agents, handlers, volunteers and the drinking and pot smoking public had ever heard of No Depression magazine. Not only had the majority heard of the magazine, most knew that it was now only online and, most importantly, the musicians held in high regard its reporting of alternative country and roots American music. Several said that it was the only publication that truly conveyed the spirit of Hardly Strictly and covered the range of music presented at this event each year.
But what about the concert? We settled in with some friends who had some prime real estate in front of the Rooster Stage and listened to the first act, What I like about Hardly Strictly is that you have the opportunity to hear a bunch of new groups regardless of where your ultimate destination is throughout the day and I have found that I am usually pleasantly surprised at how good they are. Kevin Welsh, Kirlan Kane and Fats Kaplan played a combination of acoustic, electric blues and country songs. There opening song was “Mellow Down Easy” with a steel guitar that was reminiscent of the sound that Pop Stapes got out of his guitar. That song was followed by a mixture of fiddle driven country sounds with an occasional blues song thrown in the mix.
We really wanted to catch Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, sisters, one of whom happens to be married to Steve Earle. We had had an hour to kill so we wandered over to the Towers of Gold Stage to catch some of James McMurtry’s set. While waiting for McMurthry to take the stage Martin Sexton’s was playing on the Star Stage facing the opposite direction behind the Towers of Gold Stage and the HSB crew has looped his sound through both stages. I had heard about Sexton over the years. I’m not familiar with his music that at times sounded like a cross between Jack Johnson and Dave Mathews. I quickly forgot about Sexton when McMurtry took the save and kicked into a Creedence swamp boogie reminiscent of “Bootleg Bootleg” I’ve seen McMurtry a couple of times and I’ve liked his songs and approach to roots rock; however, I was never a huge fan. The audience at HSB sang along with all of his songs and were up on their feet. Like Dave Alvin this guy has a loyal following who love his lyrics and driving raw guitar sound.
We left the Tower of Gold stage and started wandering to the opposite end of the Park to the small Porch Stage where Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer were set to go on at 1:40. It was finally warming up and there was music everywhere you turned. Hazel Dickens was on the large Banjo Stage doing a song from the Band’s repertoire She was followed by Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs on Sunday. Emmylou closes the show each year at dusk at the Banjo Stage. It would be easy to camp out at this venue and call it a great day of music.
Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer are rumored to be working on an album together and after seeing them play together in public for the first time I think that they would both benefit from this collaboration. They came out and sang a couple of songs about Georgia, opening with Kay Starr’s “Side by Side”. They covered an number of their most memorable songs including “I’m Alive” , Allison Moorer’s Oscar nominated song, “Soft Place to Fall”, “Where I’m From” and Shelby’s “Your Lies” (which you can view on her Facebook Page. They closed with two Everly Brother classics, “Brand New Heartache” and “Walk Right Back” which remind you why the Everly’s are so universally covered but rarely as well as these two delivered on Sunday. Steve Earle had mentioned on a radio show that he thought this was going to be memorable because siblings (like the Everly Brothers) can often deliver songs and messages in a very unique memorable manner.
I had to leave before the end of the sister’s set and beat feet back over to the Rooster Stage to try and catch Dave Alvin after his set. I’ve posted a lengthy review of Dave’s set and some brief interviews that I had with Dave, Phil Alvin and his drummer Lisa Pankratz. From the blogs that I’ve read from various sources on the web, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women as well as the surprise appearance of his brother, Phil, for one song was a highlight of the entire three days.
Rosanne Cash came on next after Dave with her five person band, led by guitarist/husband John Leventhal. I have read reviews for years about how good Rosanne Cash is in person and I have tried to schedule my calendar to see her when makes a rare appearance in the Bay Area but it never seemed to work out. I have to say that Cash’s set not only delivered the goods, it just might have been my favorite 45 minutes of the day. She started out with several songs from The List: “I’m Moving On”, “Motherless Child“ 500 Miles, “Sea of Heartbreak, and “Girl From The North Country” after which she commented “some songs you can sing forever.” I liked The List and I really like certain songs on The List but it is not a cd that I play over and over after a few listens. The songs really came to life in person and seem less like museum pieces. The band has a very tight, driving, nuanced approach to these classic songs. On her own songs like “Black Cadillac”, “Seven Year Ache” and “Dreams Are Not my Home” the band I was transcendent. Somebody called out “My Baby Thinks She’s A Train” Rosanne shot back “I’m Sorry For You.” I mentioned to Rosanne after her set that I’m amazed at the quality of the new up and coming and relatively obscure artists who appear at Hardly Strictly each year. When I asked where she found the members of her band she replied “New Jersey…they just seem to sprout up out of nowhere and they are good.” I ended my conversation with Cash confessing that I now could strike hearing “Seven Year Ache” live from my bucket list. She playfully slapped me on the arm and said “get outta here.”
Cash’s set was followed by Nick Lowe and his band. I’ve seen Nick over the past few years every time he appears at Hardly Strictly and it’s always been solo which never failed to be anything but excellent. Having seen Lowe with Elvis Costello two nights prior at the Great American Music Hall where Elvis sang Lowe’s songs, it was refreshing to hear Lowe sing his own songs with a band behind him. He opened with “What Lack of Love Has Done” and tore through a collection of songs from his trilogy plus a few old favorites including “Cruel to Be Kind”, “ I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “I Knew the Bride.” He closed with a Hardly Strictly favorite “What’s so Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding” which always sounds right when Lowe sings it. This crowd is aware of what a treasure Nick Lowe is and was in tune with all his songs. I spoke briefly with Lowe following his set, telling him that I chose “You Inspire Me” for the father daughter dance at my daughter’s wedding. He told me that he’s half way through a new album with this band and enjoying being out on the road with this group and not just himself.
The backstage at the Rooster Stage was filled with HS performers. My photographer asked me to interview Carolyn Wonderland a roots music musician from Houston Texas. I had never heard of Carolyn Wunderland and never heard a note from her in my life but my photographer friend told me that he had dropped in on her set and described her as something close to Janis Joplin in vocal style. I actually went out and listened to several of her cd’s after taking with Carolyn and she’s got her own thing going and I would be hesitant to peg her as anything close to Janis Joplin besides being a woman who can sing the blues. Carolyn is an engaging artist who advised me that she had been introduced to Hardly Strictly though Carlene Carter . She described her influences as being a number of Texas blues and country musicians but said that Doug Sahm in particular was one of her primary inspirations. Doug Sahm is one of my personal favorites and I understood what she was stressing when she said that she’s reluctant to classify herself as a “blues” musician. She said with a smile “Is Johnny Winter a blues musician?.” She then pointed out that at one time she played with the Derailers. I look forward to seeing Carolyn when she comes through town next. Both Wonderland and Lisa Pankratz play in a part time band comprised of changing combination of Texas blues and country musicians called “Texas Guitar Women”. The lineup also has included Sue Foley and Sarah Brown. Sounds like this group would be worth more than the price of admission.
And speaking of women, that brings me to the Rooster Stage’s closer on this final Sunday: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Back in the Sixties, I grew up in the Berkeley/Oakland East Bay Grease Funk scene. I grew up with members of Tower of Power and the Loading Zone and lived with Cold Blood when I was in college. If a band didn’t have a horn section we were not into it. I collected obscure 45’s which would later be the basis for what was called Northern Soul in the British Isles. I wrote for a magazine out of London called “Black Music and Jazz Review” basically interviewing little know Bay Area Soul bands like Marvin Holmes and the Uptights, Eugene Blacknell and the New Breed, Rodger Collins, and Sugar Pie DeSanto – writing on the history of East Bay rhythm and blues. It’s hard to recall that back in the sixties most Caucasian music lovers who had any interest in soul music usually started and stopped with Motown; perhaps with some Atlantic soul artists thrown in. My crew was into Stax and deep soul stuff which as beatniks we thought were much funkier and cooler than the Top 40 soul groups…they were grittier and more in your face.
Otis Redding played the Fillmore in the late 60’s with a “review”. Booker T and the MG’s opened and then there was a warm up singer who did Wilson Pickett and Arthur Connelly songs. Otis came out with the Markey’s backing him up and was like a linebacker assaulting the audience. He opened with “I Can’t Turn You Lose” blew the roof off the place. There was a time when the Fillmore had two sets…each of the three acts went on twice a night. The Grateful Dead were opening the night that I attended and I was standing behind Pigpen who after Otis’s first song turned to somebody standing next to him and said “How are we going to follow this?” The Fillmore was not sold out and the hippies had been turned on to Otis with his cross-over hit “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” released shortly before he died in a plane crash.
Flash forward to the new millennium and along comes Dap Tone records with groups like The Sugarman Three, Binky Griptite &The Mellowmatics, The Budos Band and most of all, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (essentially Binky Griptite’s band). This label not only captured the sound of obscure bands like Harvey Scale and the 7 Sounds and Dyke and the Blazers, the created their own hybrid and updated the sound, mixing in references to James Brown, Bobby Byrd, The Meters and the Kay Gees. And the market has changed as well. The Stax label feels like it’s always been mainstream and an entire new generation of young club goers are familiar with the old funk records and ready for something new with the punch of old deep soul music.
I went and saw Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings the first time they came to San Francisco. They were playing Elbo Room in the Mission district . The room was upstairs over a pool hall, and slightly larger than my front room. The Dap Kings come out and played four or five instrumentals which are all killer with chicken scratch guitar and blazing horns and then Binky Griptite introduced Sharon Jones who came crawling into the room and proceed to crank up the heat. A great rock n’ soul concert is measured by how hot the room gets and how much sweat comes off the walls. This one was a show for the ages and a great introduction to Dap Tone records.
Several years later I dragged some friends to see Sharon Jones and her band at Bimbos, a venerable mid-sized venue in San Francisco’s North Beach District. Her show was good. But the show was more polished and part of her approach is to drag people up out of the audience and get them to try and follow her dance moves. She was touring behind her sophomore cd, and as good as the songs were and as good as her band was, there was something missing from that first show that I witnessed at the Elbo Room.
When I saw that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings were on the Hardly Strictly lineup, I knew that they were going to be the outer limits of the “Hardly” along with Patti Smith…perhaps more so. I ran into Binky Gryptight backstage and asked him if he had a few minutes. Griptite was one of the few musicians who had no idea what who or what comprised No Depression magazine but was more than willing to talk. When asked how The Dap Kings were invited to participate at Hardly Strictly, Binky responded “The phone rings, I answer it.” Binky said that things were going well and that Sharon Jones was catching on with a broader audience. We talked about old R n B records and our mutual love for certain underappreciated artists. I finished up our discussion by saying that I felt that it was unfair to categorize Dap Tone records, the Dynamites, Bambu, Kings Go Forth or any of these new funk groups as being “retro”. Binky laughed when I said “you’re so retro you’re progressive.”
It was dusk as the Dap Kings took the stage. The group was all dressed in black suits with black ties except for Binky Griptite who was walking around dressed in a purple suit. The Dap King sound has increased , adding two backup singers to the mix. The band played two instrumentals and one Bobby Blue Bland vocal by Binky and then it was star time. Binky asked the question several times “Are you ready San Francisco?” He listed a number of Sharon Jones songs with the horns punctuating each number and then said here’s “ the woman with that “Je ne sais quoi”…110 pounds of badder than bad…Sharon Jones!”
It was clear from the first blast of horns that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings came to make a statement. She ran through a medley of her better known songs and then the band took off into another realm. Sharon Jones whipped the band into a frenzy by jumping on the “soul train”…ready to ride this train to Georgia…home of James Brown and the boogaloo.” She’s shout “DAP KINGS’ and they’d respond “YEAH” over and over before jumping into the next dance step..the pony, the shing-a-ling, the boogaloo. The song roared and built and drove the crowed into a frenzy. The Dap Kings sound was larger and funkier than it was when I last saw them at Bimbos. They are clearly improving with age. This is soul music as good as it gets and I’ve be fortunate enough to have seen a lot of the best soul bands over the years. I revised my thinking about the Dap Kings not being retro, but rather progressive. Progressive is the wrong word…great soul music does something else, something universal, something timeless. It takes a lot of talent to take people to another euphoric plane and it’s rare to experience.
I didn’t stay for Sharon Jones’ entire set. I wanted to catch a few songs from Emmylou and her band and reluctantly left the Rooster Stage area and headed over to the Banjo Stage. Sharon Jones had clearly attracted some of Emmylou’s audience that in past years made it difficult if not impossible to cross the part of the meadow that she commanded. This year I was able to walk across the expanse to the other side without any problems.
Emmylou had her usual all star band, including Buddy Miller. Emmylou opened with “My Songbird” and wove her unique magic as she played some obscure mixed with the familiar songs from her expansive collection including “Easy from Now On”, “Two More Bottles of Wine” and “Jupiter Rising”. Emmylou is always the perfect way to end an overdose of great music over three days and it’s always a highlight of Hardly Strictly. Her sound is what it is and it never fails to mesmerize the audience. I have to say that after leaving the Sharon Jones bomb site the change was almost too dramatic to fully appreciate this year. That’s how good the lineup was on Sunday and to my ears it was the women who really left their mark on the day. If I’d been fortunate enough to have seen Patti Smith, from what I’ve read, it would only drive home my point to a greater degree.