(Above: Ryan Adams Photo: Pedro Paredes-Haz)
It would be both ungrateful and unthinkable not to begin this by thanking Warren Hellman (1934-2011) for founding and funding – as the clawhammer banjoist and singer Abigail Washburn put it on Sunday – “the freest event in the universe.”
Although it’s not clear how we might check the math on that, it’s not up for debate that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – a three-day, completely free musical festival in Golden Gate Park, featuring over 100 artists on seven stages – is a gift of the most extraordinary kind. This past weekend marked the festival’s 14th year.
The event’s only discernible flaw (and it’s a charmed one) lies in its tyranny of choice. It was a painful process for this correspondent, and presumably for most attendees, to make decisions about which stages to visit and which acts to see – a dilemma difficult enough even before John Prine’s flight out of Chicago was delayed, pushing his stage time back and forcing a choice between Prine and Lucinda Williams. (Lucinda.)
Here follows as broad an account as one-humanly possible of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2014. All reports of profuse beer and profuse sweat have been omitted, on the hunch that the reader will assume them throughout.
Peter Rowan – 72 now – played the Banjo stage at a hot high noon, with his Twang an’ Groove band. Rowan, whose musical pedigree includes time playing with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, played a comfortingly predictable set – half gentle cowboy ballads, half buoyant opportunities for Rowan’s Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeling, and concluding with a moving “Oh, Freedom.”
Next, per the carefully pre-drafted itinerary, was Buckwheat Zydeco (née Stanley Dural, Jr.) at the Arrow Stage. It’s not really a question as to whether B. Zydeco is a skilled practitioner of the Louisiana genre – the Grammy-winning group was celebrating their 30th anniversary and, via accordion and washboard and hypervocals, had most of their crowd up on moving feet – but zydeco is a style I can’t listen to for more than 15 minutes without starting to feel on a fun but alien planet. Hence, back to the Banjo Stage for The Waybacks, a four-piece Bay Area-based bluegrassish band (I might call them “ambient bluegrass”), who played among their original songs a percussive and somewhat militant “Shady Grove,” whose instrumentation felt very true to what I have always thought of as an ominous ballad.
We regrettably caught only the end of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down at the Star Stage and thus only got to hear a minute of Thao Nguyen’s silk-raspy voice before seeing some of Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin with The Guilty Ones. I had been led there with some others by our friend Matt. His father, he said, was a passionate fan of the outfit, whose music and aesthetic was indeed of a dadly quality.
My friend Amanda and I soon left for the Rooster Stage to see Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn dear to both of our hearts and given to woe. (“This song reminds me of every breakup I’ve ever had,” Amanda said as Van Etten began the mournful “Tarifa.” “Is this your breakup song?” I asked. “She is my breakup song,” said Amanda.) But, during most of the set – and it was a beautiful set – I kept looking over at Amanda and saying “Lucinda” while smiling in beatific anticipation, which Amanda graciously pretended to be amused and not annoyed by.
I’d been hoping Lucinda Williams would just play Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in its entirety, supplemented by a few other selected songs, and she generously granted my wish as much as was reasonable (which is to say not really at all). She also played several songs from her new record, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, which dropped at the end of September. And these songs – “Protection,” in particular – retained the inimitable Williams lazy-r roaring grit. But never has there been as deliciously angry a ballad as “Joy,” which, thankfully, made an appearance.
This correspondent, being a North Carolina native, would have felt deep shame if she hadn’t gone to see alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams – also from that fine state – close Friday’s shows at the Banjo Stage. This does not mean she thought it cute when, between tender and heart-squeezing love songs, Adams spewed artlessly profane comments into his audience, and called widespread attention to a probably perfectly nice person’s joint.
Red Baraat’s show, at 11:40am at the Towers of Gold Stage, constituted the earliest party I’ve ever attended, and I decided the world would soon be a pleasanter place if everyone began the day by listening to Red Baraat. The Brooklyn-based collective plays brass- and drum-heavy Northern Indian-influenced funk that magically turns its every listener into a great dancer.
Rather high on that, I trekked over to the Porch Stage to see The Felice Brothers, whom I’d seen at The Chapel on Valencia Street the night before, and whose cheer – particularly that of accordionist and vocalist James Felice – is utterly charming. It also, in the song “Whiskey In My Whiskey,” continues country’s traditional trope of gleeful alcoholism. When the songs got slow, I left to catch the end of Johnnyswim, consisting of the married couple Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez (I’m a bald sucker for band couples) before I met back with my people to see the beginning of Justin Townes Earle, whose father would close the shows later in the evening.
And that was the end of the pre-St. Paul & the Broken Bones day. At the Arrow Stage, the soul band from Birmingham was led by the staggering (there’s not another word) voice and awe-kindling steps of the suited and sweating Paul Janeway, whose style and delivery I’d call evangelical if I’d ever heard of an evangelist encouraging sexual activity.
It made sense, following this deeply impressive show, to go right to its musically genetic source and see Mavis Staples play the Star Stage. Her set, so comfortable in its eminence, surely incurred the necessary rocking and bobbing, but the most popular reaction thereto – and my reaction – was grateful, grateful nodding.
After “Respect Yourself,” I crossed the festival again to hang out with the drummer of Steve Earle & The Dukes, the wry and talented Will Rigby (I’d say that even if he weren’t like family), who’d be going on the Banjo Stage after Dave Rawlings Machine to close out Saturday. Though there was no way for the band to get out of the park alive without playing “Copperhead Road,” the set had surprises, like a guest appearance by Shawn Colvin and a cover of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing.”
It was especially moving, while the sun fell through the trees in Hellman’s Hollow, to hear Earle reverently play “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.”
Jerry Douglas’s Earls of Leicester, as they said it, have something of a mission statement: to give a “new coat of paint” to the bluegrass tradition. But it seems silly for them to try to do that with such seminal source material as “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The group’s explanation of their name belied their loyalty to that first coat of paint – “Leicester” is pronounced “Lester,” as in Lester Flatt, and the Earls are for Earl Scruggs. The Earls of Leicester are a fitting tribute to the legendary duo, but one would never challenge this claim, given the icon-studded lineup containing, among others, Dobro master Jerry Douglas and fiddler Johnny Warren (son of Paul Warren).
Dr. Ralph Stanley (87 years on earth, 69 in music) continued the Banjo Stage’s legend-parade with the Clinch Mountain Boys, which contained his grandson Nathan. I watched this with two Alaskan brothers, fiddlers who spent much of the show in profound technical appreciation. Among the set’s stunners was Dr. Ralph’s chilling “O Death” (one might recognize his cover of the song from the soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The show did end with a trio of events puzzling in combination: 1) Nathan’s performance of a touching pokey song to his grandfather titled “Papaw, I Love You” (which it was odd to see a couple slow-dancing to); 2) a hyper-extended sales pitch (also by Nathan) of band merchandise; and 3) the brandishing and playing of a shofar, after announcement of support for the Nation of Israel.
From here, the Alaskan brothers and I headed to the Towers of Gold Stage for Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn (the younger brother had had the privilege, at his performing arts center job, of a one-minute jam session with the former). The married couple’s new baby is – if musical talent is genetically inheritable – the Jesus Christ of the banjo world, and will thus eventually shove his parents into the background, but for now it seems we could not ask for more than for Fleck and Washburn to sit together on a stage – in separate chairs, but sharing the throne – and play their instrument together.
It was past 4pm, and by now you could feel that it was all starting to shut down. I headed over to the Banjo Stage, where Jeff Tweedy was finishing up, and crossed the field until I was behind the food trucks and met my friend Kate up on the steep dirty hill, where you could find prime vantage points in the spaces between trees. We struggled with a bottle opener and braced our feet in the dry soil and the park started to darken, just as it had the past two nights, and we watched the gorgeous white shock of hair and the Emmylou Harris attached to it appear on the stage and begin her set, all of whose songs sounded like saying goodbye. Which, of course, we had to do.