Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hardly Strictly

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was last weekend.  The festival, which is free, started in 2001 and has expanded over the years to include more than just bluegrass acts (the "Hardly" was added later).  Over 600,000 people thronged to Golden Gate Park on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  It was one of those special events where, despite the terrible crowds, everyone was relatively calm, relaxed, and happy.  No, it's not pleasant to feel like you live in a tube of toothpaste.  But it was worth that crushing feeling to hear incredible music.  I spent most of the time wandering on my own, though I did manage to meet up with some friends, which was nearly impossible given the circumstances.  You'll be able to suss that out on your own in the following photos.

 People had wonderful outfits, like this gentleman in a rose and pistol shirt.  I saw him at Robert Plant & the Band of Joy's set and the next day, in the exact same outfit, at Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. 

One woman helped a friend with her dreads at Band of Heathens.

 I loved this guy's hat.  And he loved Robert Plant. 

This woman had a great patchwork Earth Mother dress.  She was selling headbands, like the one she's wearing, to festival goers.  And making a tidy profit, I think.  Woodstock for the Consumer Generation.  Not everyone appreciated the hippies, but others marveled at the festival, which felt like a throwback to the Summer of Love.  With more dogs and fewer people tripping on acid (I think).  One guy looked around and smiled, saying "People are drinking PBR and listening to Robert Plant...It could be forty years ago."

The Gaia-Hawker had a stranger hold her parasol as she made a sale.  He looked pretty pleased (seriously).

Of course, no concert in SF is complete without matching tie-dye.

Or massive numbers of bikes.

The weather threatened to be wet and cold, as it was the previous year, but it was beautiful out.  Just enough cloud cover so you didn't roast.

Did I mention that it was crowded?

 Without much of a plan for the earlier shows on Saturday, I checked out Band of Heathens, mostly because I liked their name.  They turned out to be a sick, old-school rock n roll n blues band from Austin.  They ushered in (and greeted) the sunshine, though they had to break for a quick guitar re-tune as the weather warmed.  They ended with a slow, more countrified version of Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace" in homage to that San Francisco sound.  Pretty brave, if you ask me, but they pulled it off.

 Then I fought my way over to see Hugh Laurie, otherwise known as Dr. Gregory House.  Although I'm often dubious of actors who try to be musicians (I'm looking at you, Scarlett Johansson), Mr. Laurie is a serious and legitimately good musician.  He did old blues, gospel, spirituals, and Southern standards, from "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" to "Swanee River" (of the latter, he said he plays it to "exorcise the demons"--I'm not sure what that means, but perhaps he just wanted to acknowledge the racist history of the song...or I could be way off-base).  Apart from being hilarious, he killed it.  It helped that he had a great band, of which he said: "They are the Rolls Royce, and I'm the Spirit of Ecstasy on the hood."  You could tell he was stoked to be doing this--when opening his set, he exclaimed (if Hugh Laurie can exclaim), "This is the most exciting day of my life."  He also continually referred to the audience as "Bob" and ended by saying, "I'm starting to like you, Bob.  I'm going away from here with a firm message: Bob is great."  Mr. Laurie, so are you.

 At this point, I managed to find one of my childhood friends (hey Melissa!) and her crew.  A few of us fought our way back over to see Patty Griffin, one of my all-time favorite singers.  We didn't end up in a great spot--it was too crowded and I needed garlic fries--but her voice sort of floated out over the crowd, like a ghost, ethereal.  She brought out Robert Plant for a number (she sings with him for the Band of Joy).  She's just wonderful.

My final concert was Gillian Welch & David Rawlings.  They mostly did stuff from their new album, The Harrow & the Harvest, and all of it was great.  There's nothing really more to say--they're two of the best bluegrass/folk/Americana/etc. musicians working today.  I thought of a dear friend during "Look at Miss Ohio" (hey Mel-Mel!), one of my favorite songs ("I wanna do right / But not right now").  Ms. Welch promised to "learn a fancy dance step for next time," and attempted a kick-step she hadn't quite mastered.  Before singing "The Way the Whole Thing Ends," she said, "I have this fixation.  I can't seem to get the word 'cornbread' out of my head," hence the lyrics: "That's the way the cornbread crumbles / That's the way the whole thing ends."  To end, in another nod to San Francisco's musical contributions, they covered Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit."  Grace Slick was one of the queens (the "Acid Queen," to be precise) of late 60s rock (we will ignore the Jefferson Starship "We Built This City" abomination...ugh), and to cover one of her songs is courageous, especially given her unique voice.  But it was a triumphant gamble, and I left the festival buoyant and smiling.  

To close, I'd like to talk about my first set, Robert Plant & the Band of Joy, who played on Friday night.  I went to HSB on Friday specifically to hear the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin.  I've seen a few (once) great rock acts over the years: Bob Dylan (three times, all wonderful), the Rolling Stones (once, still good but a shadow of former times), the Who (I don't think that energy can be captured anymore...and if they're not smashing guitars, what's the point?), and Simon & Garfunkel (still LOVE them).  So I thought knew what to expect with Mr. Plant: a crowd-pleasing set with little innovation (Stones, Who) and/or an unrecognizable voice who can't capture that former glory (MAYBE Dylan if he weren't still putting out awesome records...but I'll concede he's very froggy).  At the start, it was a combination of both: he opened with "Black Dog," which was risky: it requires pitch-perfect vocals and a face-melting guitar that's just impossible to replicate without Jimmy Page.  He then went into a number of covers and allowed his talented band--including Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin--to take over here and there, which was a smart move.  Mr. Plant was also genius in using Ms. Griffin to hit the notes he no longer can and in shifting to slower, more bluegrassy/Americana Led Zeppelin standards (i.e., less rock guitar heavy songs), like "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Ramble On."  They ended with rollicking versions of "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" and "Gallows Pole" as a waxing crescent moon sunk low in the West.  The perfect way to start a weekend of exceptional music.

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