- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 13 October 2009
Warren Hellman is a man with deep pockets and a deep appreciation of traditional bluegrass music. The fact that he lives in San Francisco is just a matter of good luck for its citizens. This year marked the ninth consecutive year that he's gifted Shaky Town with his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and it's an event that locals are loathe to miss and travelers are eager to see. It started as a modest, one-stage affair with 13,000 observers in its first year. It has morphed into a towering phenomenon with a sixth stage added this year to accommodate the legion of onlookers that descend on Golden Gate Park to witness artists as diverse as MC Hammer and Emmylou Harris. This year's crowd estimates range from half a million folks to 800,000. It looked more like 800,000 to me, but who knows? You can only see so far with your naked eyes. Especially when hurricane winds are blowing dirt and dust into them. Sounds unpleasant, huh? It's the opposite of unpleasant. Trust me.
Day One: Friday, October 2, 2009:
Friday is the "appetizer" of the HSBF. There are fewer acts on only two stages, but there are always surprises and highlights, and you don't want to be the one that missed it. This year's Friday headliners were John Prine and Lyle Lovett (and His Large Band) on the Banjo Stage. I was most interested in Lovett who took the stage following Prine's set at 5:45pm. I got there at about 5:15 and saw a mass of people that must have started arriving in the morning. Many of them looked like they could have been retired, and the diversity in the crowd is often as entertaining as the music. My accomplice and I were able to make our way to the very front without annoying anyone too terribly, and watched Lovett's set from about twenty yards out. I'd have loved to have seen more of Prine's set, but some of us still have to work for a living and were therefore deprived of seeing the aforementioned MC Hammer on the Star Stage too.
I always thought that Lyle Lovett was a niche act that was more amusing than good. I was entirely, unequivocally wrong. Lyle Lovett is as talented as anyone I saw all weekend and His Large Band is comprised of some insanely good players too. Lovett, himself, is a fine vocalist and an accomplished guitarist with a catalog of great songs that his audience has known about for years. Many audience members knew every word, and I envied their familiarity as it always makes a more coherent memory when you go in with prior knowledge. That doesn't mean I didn't have fun. I had plenty. His second song was the one that I remembered from my childhood ("Here I Am"), and it got a huge reaction from the crowd when he started it. (We all knew the part about the cheeseburger...) By this time, the band was in full "swing," no pun intended. Lovett had a great rapport with his backing singers (a group of four randy men that played to each other and the crowd with equal flair) as well as the smaller unit that he used for the more traditional, quieter material. The dynamics of his set were mind-blowing, and his duet with John Prine on Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta" was a high water mark for the weekend. Lovett's set seemed more like an old-time review than a modern production with intro music and a reprise at the end, and every player got his moment in between. Everyone left the park with smiles that night in anticipation of all that was to come...
Day Two: Saturday, October 3, 2009:
Wind. That is what was to come. Wind and cold and good times and great music and tons of people. I tried to start my day with Jorma Kaukonen on the Rooster Stage, but his was a quiet set and the crowd was already too thick to navigate in that area. I didn't get a good look at anyone on the Rooster Stage all weekend, really, for that same reason. I jumped over to the new Towers of Gold Stage to catch some of Okkervil River, after that. They weren't doing it for me, but everyone else sure liked them. Audience participation was rampant. (I found out later that Robert Plant had sat in during Buddy Miller's set just before Okkervil's. That was a big miss on my part.) I went back to the Rooster to at least hear some of Boz Scaggs, and I was glad I did as his Blue Velvet Band featured folks like James Cotton, Nick Lowe, Buddy Miller, and Jimmie Vaughan amongst others. They played as bluesy as you'd expect and some friends had staked out a nice little patch of grass with a blanket and the whole bit so I was happy I made it over. I don't think I sat down again for the rest of the day.
I went back over to Towers of Gold for my first time seeing Old 97's and it was one of the best (certainly most energetic) sets I saw this year. These guys have been around for eons, and plenty of my friends love them, but I'd never paid them much attention. I couldn't do anything but pay attention especially when they brought out Jon Langford (didn't know a thing about him) and Exene Cervenka (from the legendary Knitters) for separate guest spots. Both brought big energy to an already rocking set by a band I'll keep up with from this point on. These guys play stripped down Texas rock and swing with nasty guitars and attitude for days. That's right up my alley, you understand.
By now, it's approaching 5pm and the realization of what I'm into is as cold as the wind on my face. As I try to make my way to the Banjo Stage for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, I am amazed at the volume of people in this park. The field is not manageable. The hillside trees on far stage left were our best option, and that's where we sat. A hillside with a couple of friends, a couple of beers that we bought from some hippie, some truly beautiful acoustic music, and a good strong breeze making its bid for "star of the show." That's what was happening at about six o'clock Saturday evening in San Francisco. I could hear everything fine, but I could hardly see a thing. Welch played some of her more popular material, and then the guests started coming out. Emmylou and Gillian sound like angels together, and David Rawlings is one of the finest, most original players around. The whole gang nailed "The Weight" along with The Old Crow Medicine Show as guests to finish the set. Steve Earle was next, but I couldn't think of anything but the wind by then.
I mean, it was fierce. It was the kind of thing where we all tried not to talk about it at the time, but it dominated the conversation in the warmth of the bar later that night. Steve Earle talked about it too as the wind blew a terrible hiss across the one microphone that he and the Bluegrass Dukes shared. This only happened a couple of times and it gave the set some character more so than anything else. The band was appropriately great and really sounded together, but that damn wind was all encompassing. My friends and I decided to leave a few minutes early to beat the rush and succeeded in that regard. We failed, however, to map a functional route out and we ended up walking. We walked a long time. We walked to the Inner Sunset district and had some pizza and a couple of beers at a spot called Yancy's. We caught up on the day's college games. Then, we went home and rested up so we could do it again on Sunday.
Day 3: Sunday, October 4, 2009
I woke up Sunday knowing that I had to get a move on to make it to the park by noon for Booker T. and the Drive-By Truckers at the Arrow Stage. I made it just in time and the home team did not disappoint. The Truckers were doing well enough when I left Athens, GA a few years back, and they're a well oiled machine by now. They recorded an album with Booker T. and Neil Young recently and I was hoping that Young would make a surprise appearance, but it was not to be. The fact that I didn't notice at the time is a testament to the strength of the group's performance. Booker T. came out from behind his organ to play guitar and sing on "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay" to end the set, and the whole crew came back to encore with the Truckers' "Angels and Fuselage." I couldn't have been more proud.
From there, I meandered around the Rooster and Star Stages for a bit to check out Billy Bragg and the Chieftains, respectively, from a distance. The Chieftains were getting an especially big crowd reaction and had Irish dancers onstage to compliment their performance. Galactic followed, and did the same exact thing I've seen them do for the last few years so I didn't feel like I was missing much when I went to the Towers of Gold Stage for Allen Toussaint. I watched from stage right as he ran his New Orleans band through a host of hits that I didn't realize were his ("Southern Nights," "Fortune Teller," "Working In A Coal Mine"). I couldn't admire his piano technique with my eyes as I had a monitor in the way, but my ears knew what they were hearing and his flawless set was one of my favorites of the weekend. The High Priest of New Orleans Soul, indeed...
I couldn't get close enough to any stage to see any artist very well by 3pm. Aimee Mann sounded great even from behind the Arrow Stage, but Mavis Staples was just a lost cause for me. I'm sure her performance was wonderful, but I couldn't see or hear from the back of the Rooster Stage lawn so I staked out a little real estate for Todd Snider back at the Arrow while I still could. He was funnier than good, and his audience clearly loved him. He got big laughs with his song about the no-hitter that Dock Ellis through under the influence of LSD in 1970 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also observed that "the number one symptom of heart disease is sudden death," which tickled the hell out of me for some reason. I'd had so much fun by then, you could have told me my shirt was on fire and it wouldn't have bothered me a bit. Afterwards, I caught a little of the Knitters from in the trees by the Rooster Stage. They were mid-rock when a friendly young lady informed my group that a branch was thinking of falling on us. She was right. I don't know what was holding it in place, but we relocated and it held up at least until we left for Little Feat back at the Arrow Stage. They, sadly, counted as my one disappointment for the weekend. Nothing much to report there except that I just found them lacking. The Old Crow Medicine Show closed out the weekend admirably on the Rooster Stage, and then nine of us got into what must have looked like a clown car before heading to the Mission district for late-night Mexican food.
I gotta say that HSBF is my favorite local event of the year. By Sunday evening, you couldn't tell where the crowd for one stage ended and the next began. You couldn't get a phone call or send a text message because we'd crashed the phone company's server. There aren't enough portable toilets, and people still insist on bringing their dogs and baby strollers into this chaos. I missed several of the acts that I was most excited to see, and I still couldn't have had a better time if I were in Las Vegas with Warren Hellman's credit card. The daytime weather was as nice as you could have hoped for, and so were the people. I read in the local paper that there were exactly zero arrests made at the Festival all weekend. That statistic is as mind boggling as the numbers. I fear that we may be approaching a point that will necessitate some changes to future installments as you can only accommodate so many folks at one time in one place. Whatever happens, I'll be there to see it. The 2010 dates have already been posted, and they are October 1, 2, and 3. Plan now, get there early, and bring a smile. Lord knows everyone else will. All 800,000 of them.