Sunday, October 07, 2007

Hardly Strictly

I had to be in the Bay Area for something else anyhow. I happen to like a song by James McMurtry enough that I was looking around to see if he had any upcoming concert dates near me, and I ran across a music festival I’d never heard of before: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, in Golden Gate Park. The guy who puts it on, an amateur banjo player named Warren Hellman, loves bluegrass and Emmylou Harris and hosts it for the public every year, with no charge at all for admission.

So I headed up and spent three or four days looking for parking near (ironically) the park. That’s an exaggeration. I started looking for parking during McMurtry’s set, which started at 1 p.m., and I was parked by 3 p.m., with only about a half-mile walk to the stages.

Whaddya want for nothing?

Even though I’d missed McMurtry, there were only about a thousand other people there I wanted to see. Boz Scaggs, Michelle Shocked, Allison Moorer, Bruce Hornsby . . . and on and on. Did I mention the show was free? Can you imagine why 500,000 other people were also circling the block looking for parking? (That’s not an exaggeration.)

With several stages set up at different spots in the park, it was easy to wander around from one to the next, sampling the music and finding the friends who had found parking before me. Eventually we all connected.

The weather was outstanding, and the crowd was relaxed and cheerful. I’d estimate about the front third of any given crowd was paying a lot of attention to the music, and then a lot of people toward the back (us included, for at least part of the time) were spending more time hanging out with each other, catching up, shooting the breeze, playing with dogs and sticks and balls. Good excuse for a day in the park.

Oh, and did I mention they hired the Blue Angels to do flybys during set changes?

I wandered past Boz Scaggs on my way in, playing a killer “Honky Tonkin’,” and I knew I was going to have fun here. Friend #1 was watching Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Scaggs (no relation) when I found him. They were stirring up a bluegrass version of “The Way It Is,” complete with fiddles and banjos. It was pretty good, but my cellphone camera can only do so much with its microphone. You can thank me now for not posting video.

Then we wandered over and found Friend #2 and child sitting way in the back of the Michelle Shocked crowd, goofing off on the lawn.

The end of the day was Steve Earle. As he fired up a mostly solo show, the sun was setting. By the time he finished, it was dark.

He kicked off with “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” a Dylan cover, which he sold with a very entertaining story about how he’d learned it from a Dylan album even though at one point he lived in Mexico across the street from the guy who’d allegedly written it. We got “Billy Austin,” and the new “Oxycontin Blues,” and he sang the stirring post-9/11 “Jerusalem,” about his dream that one day people would stop fighting each other all over the world. “I decided to keep singing this until it came true,” he said by way of introduction.

Steve has a new album out, and our set sounded like a shortened version of the set he’s touring with. He brought out a guy with a drum-and-sample machine and dove into some newer stuff, including a cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” which is a funny fit for Steve Earle, but oddly appropriate.

I’d been sorry I had missed Allison Moorer earlier in the day (I heard she sang a whole set of parking songs), but I was in luck: She came onstage with him, about midway through the set.

They have a couple of duets on his new album, plus they’re married, so I guess I really shouldn’t have been too surprised.

I think even if she sang in another language, I’d still love her voice.

She sang harmonies with him on “City of Immigrants,” and they sang “Days Aren’t Long Enough” from the new album.

Before finishing the set, he brought Cindy Sheehan out on stage, and she reminded the crowd that she was running for Congress, trying to unseat Nancy Pelosi.

That should be an interesting race. I’m sure a lot of conservatives would love to lose Nancy Pelosi too, but I’m not sure the old enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend arithmetic will compute here.

We were blessed with outstanding fall weather in a city where the elements are notoriously temperamental, and a good time was enjoyed by all. Except maybe the guys in the planes. I’m not sure they got to hear any of the show, unless they had it piped in through their headphones.


Papa Bradstein said...


Andrew Shields said...

Did you catch the wonderful Railroad Earth at all?

mrjumbo said...

Railroad Earth played Sunday, and by the time they hit the stage, I was already in Southern California, out on a bicycle workout.

It's always good to save something for next year!