Peace Love + Twang: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2011
Where to start reporting about what has become the largest free concert on the face of the planet…Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 11? The most obvious place to start talking about this year’s three day concert is with Hazel Dickens.
Most of No Depression’s readers are undoubtedly aware of Hardly Strictly and probably know something about its history. In case you are new to the genre or living in a cave, Hardly Strictly is the brainchild of Warren Hellman, San Francisco venture capitalist, philanthropist, Levi Ride and Tie finisher and emerging banjo star. He has been called a “musical socialist” and has personally paid for a three day concert for the past eleven years in Golden Gate Park and opened it to the public as his gift to the City of San Francisco. He says he started the concert so he’d have a place to play with his start up band, The Wronglers.
About eight years ago I had a meeting with Warren at his offices. I was approaching him with two other friends to support a revamped alumni magazine for the University of California. I was looking at pictures of many of the luminaries that had their picture taken with Hellman: presidents, local politicians, movie stars and some musicians. He asked “Want to see my favorite picture?” He directed my attention to a candid shot of himself and Emmylou Harris at one of the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass events. We started to talk about music and he invited me to a meeting of his class reunion on the University of California campus and he wanted to introduce me to Hazel Dickens. I went to Warren’s reunion meeting and met this charming elderly woman who mesmerized the small audience with a few songs. We chatted for a few minutes and that was that.
I later learned that Hazel Dickens was born seventy five years ago in rural West Virginia, one of eleven children. In other words, the real deal. Hazel was one of Warren’s inspirations to start the festival. “Hazel was particularly important because somebody gave me a CD of “Hazel and Alice and I was blown away. I said that if I ever started a festival I wondered if Hazel would come and play. She did and we became good friends through it.” Hazel died this year, six months after her final set in Golden Gate Park. Last year she told her audience that she didn’t think this festival would last a year.
Hazel’s spirit and her music were celebrated by many of the performers this year over the three days. On Saturday, Warren Hellman was joined on the stage by Rom Thomsam, a longtime collaborator with Dickens. Together these players, looking not only like adults but quite Application as well, sang Dickens’ “Mannington Mine” one of her best know songs about a coal mine repeatedly cited for violations that trapped 78 miners and cost a number of lives.
And the passing of Hazel Dickens also marked a slight almost imperceptible change in Hardly Strictly in general. Like the founder himself, many of the performers would qualify as senior citizens: Jimmie Dale Gilmore is sixty eight, Guy Clark is 69, Del McCoury is 72, Ralph Stanley is 84. And some of the perennial favorites are pulling up the rear: Emmylou Harris and John Prine are 64 and two of the big headliners this year, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard are certainly in the same fraternity.
Much of the credit for Hardly Strictly’s success goes to Dawn Holliday who has booked the music for Hardly Strictly for the past eleven years and is Warren’s right hand person. She is quoted as saying “I think for the festival to continue we have to bring people up. With Hazel dying and Doc (Watson) being too sick to travel I think part of my realization this year was that we have to grow the artists.” So that resulted in Holliday inviting new groups and performers like Conor Oberst, Thurston Moore, Buckethead, Cass McCombs, Gomez, the Broken Social Scene, and Fritz and the Tantrums . She also invited Hugh Laurie who surprised me with his New Orleans laced set. I was recently debating the hubris of actors who think they can be great musicians, but Laurie proved to be an exception. Holliday defended Laurie’s inclusion stating “Out of all the actors who can and can’t play he (Laurie) is on the list of those who can play.”
Friday was heavy on rock and light on acoustic music with big acts like Chris Issak, Band of Joy and Thurston Moore playing. Issak decked out in his traditional rhinestone jacket performed material mostly from his new album “Beyond the Sun” which not surprisingly is a tribute to 50’s classic rock and roll. Robert Plant’s Band of Joy did pretty much the same set that I saw at Berkeley’s Greek Theater and reviewed for No Depression. After months of touring the band sounded tighter and louder than it did eight months prior. The band which includes Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller played a generous set of sixteen songs, seven of which were Led Zeppelin songs, the balance from their debut album.
On Saturday two of the groups I caught that were exceptional were Gillian Welch with David Rawlings and Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. Haggard and Kristofferson ran through their incredible songbook backed by a remarkable assemblage of “Strangers”. They sang crowd favorites “The Ballad of Poncho and Lefty”, “Big City”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Middle aged women bared their chests in front of the stage in a very un-Hardly Strictly manner and were ushered off. Joints were thrown at the performers and littered the stage. At one point a radio disc jockey noted that Kristofferson bent down and pocketed a few. Haggard introduced “Okie From Muskogee” with the comment “Government shouldn’t be allowed to tell a 70 year old man what he can and cannot smoke”.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings played to a growing sea of fans. I can remember the first year that they performed, there were probably 100 people in front of one of the up and coming stages. This year they mostly focused on songs from their new album “The Harrow and the Harvest” as well as some of their better know songs: “Red Clay Halo” “Elvis Presley Blues and “Look at Miss Ohio.” Their final number was “I’ll Fly Away” which earned a standing ovation including from Warren Hellman. They returned and played an encore, San Francisco’s own Jefferson Airplanes “White Rabbit.”
Before I touch on one other special aspect of what has become an extra special, not-to –be missed highly anticipated annual event in the Bay Area, I’ll conclude with a few general observations. First of all, it was forecasted to be raining this year and it turned out to be the usual warm Indian summer weekend weather. Secondly, there were articles in the local press asking if the concert has “become the victim of its own success.” Last year there was only one arrest and there have never been any of the usual drunken obnoxious crowd problems that plague these mega concerts. C.W. Nevius called this “the mellowest audience in concertdom.” While crowds for the three days were estimated to up to 800,000, large audiences would sit through John Prine, Emmylou Harris or Gillian Welsh – often with three acoustic instruments on stage and listen attentively with rapt respect for the music. It’s hard to describe unless you experience it firsthand. A far cry from the Glastonbury and Isle of Wright concerts you see on cable TV every night with drunken crowds of teenagers swaying on people’s shoulders and shouting along with every song…not that there’s anything wrong with this kind experience either. Where else would you see Robert Plant walking around and joining Buddy Miller or Patty Giffin for a song during their sets? I would be remiss not to mention two of my photographers favorite moments this year: the Blind Boys of Alabama, octogenarians in the truest sense of the word, whose tight clean harmonies kept the audiences on their feet through their entire set. The breakout band of the year according to Brandt was Brokedown in Bakersfield. Tim Bluhm of Mother Hips and Nicki Bluhm his wife have started a group that captures the Bakersfield sound with Nicki belting out such songs as “Luxury Liner” and “My Baby’s Gone.”
I could go on and on about the performances over the three days on six stages covering roughly two miles of park land but I want to leave some room for dessert – the opening night benefit concert for the Richard DeLone Housing Project. The benefit raises money and awareness for Prader Willi Syndrome, a rare and complex non-inherited genetic disease caused by a defect in the hypothalamus. Last year Elvis Costello sang Nick Lowe songs and Nick Lowe sang Elvis songs backed by Bill Kirchen’s Honky Tonk Hammer of the Gods. It was a once in a lifetime memorable concert. This year the DeLone Benefit was billed as an evening of “Peace Love and Twang” and featured a group of the some of the better known performers at this year’s Hardly Strictly Concert: Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ryan Bingham, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Jim Lauderdale.
The evening started out with the Preservation Hall Band taking the stage, representing the mean age for the entire event, professionals in their fifties, sixties and seventies. I wondered how this would work and assumed they would play their own set having seen them play at Preservation Hall in New Orleans over the years to tourists from Texas slurping down Hurricanes on Bourbon Street.
They started with one lone trumpet and then the group stepped up on stage and joined in and started to improvise. By the end of the first song the roof was being blown off the place. They played one more song and then Buddy Miller came out on the stage and said “now we’re going to show you how we merge country music with New Orleans street music.” He opened with an old Emmett Miller song “Old Man Steel,” followed by a ballad “I’m Going to Roll Down Heaven All Day”. This was followed by Hank Williams “Lovesick Blues.” Buddy was in fine soulful voice and the Preservation Hall Band backed him like they had been playing together for years. Steve Earle came out and sang with the crew, an old Johnny and Jack song called “Your Poison Heart.”
Bill Kirchen’s Honky Tonk Hammer of the Gods took the stage and opened up with the blues chestnut “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover” that rocked the house. Caroline DeLone joined the band and did a ballad. I have to admit that I’ve seen Bill Kirchen a number of times at Hardly Strictly often backing Elvis Costello and it took this concert to really strike me how versatile and nuanced his guitar playing can be. He would shift from rockabilly to country ballad to blues to soul as the night moved along. Jim Lauderdale came out and sang a few songs ending with a rockabilly song with Bill Kirchen where he commented that he “was sweating like Rush Limbaugh at a Steve Earle concert.” Jim Lauderdale did a few songs from his new album written with the Grateful Dead’s songwriter Robert Hunter.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore took the stage and opened with “Tonight I Think I’m Going to Go Downtown” and finished with fellow Lubbock Texas songwriter Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy”. Throughout the evening Bill Kirchen would play songs from his new album or be joined by his wife Laurie Kirchen to sing a West Virginia song in tribute to Hazel Dickens. Kevin Blackie Ferrell was invited to join the group and sang his signature songs “Rockabilly Funeral” and “Sonora’s Death Row”, a song I first heard on Dave Alvin’s “West of the West” CD.
Ryan Bingham was announced as “our only on Oscar winning performer of the evening.” He started out with a solo slide guitar and harmonica rack song that rocked. He followed it with Tom Waits song and finished with an old Commander Cody song “Down to the Seeds and Stems Again Blues.” He did not play his Oscar winning song “The Weary Kind” I guess because it’s become his “Satisfaction” and he’s tired of playing it. But damn it’s a good song and I wish he had played it.
Buddy came back out and joined Bill Kirchens band for a rousing version of “Gasoline and Matches” and one of my favorites of his, the old O.V. Wright song, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”. I would put Buddy Miller up against just about anybody singing a soul ballad and my music colleague Lue Ann Tikker agrees with me that he’s one of the most soulful singers in the business.
Bill Kirchen said that “I saw Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival and it ruined me for ever doing honest work.” Then he and Buddy launched into “The Times They are A Changing “ at a breakneck speed that concluded with a lengthy exchange of startling guitar solos. I was beginning to wonder if Steve Earle would ever return and finally he was announced. He came out and sang “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” “Guitar Town” and one other Hank Williams song, the band again sounding like it was one of the best versions of the Dukes yet. He finished this song and talked about his experience working on Treme and how he’d come to appreciate the damage that had been done to New Orleans culture in the wake of Katrina. He invited the Preservation Hall Band up on stage again and started singing “This City” with the lyrics “this City won’t wash away.” Everybody came back for a rousing encore of the old Lee Dorsey R and B classic “Working in a Coal Mine.” As the crowd of well heeled long time concert goers flocked out into the midnight streets, I couldn’t help but think of Warren Hellman’s comment about Hazel Dickens “She’s probably looking down from heaven right now thinking ’How’d that old bastard make it?’”
Please enjoy this slide show of all the great photos Brandt took at HSB: