First a note that with 70+ acts over 5 stages in basically 2 days (plus a short warm-up schedule Friday afternoon), any Hardly Strictly Bluegrass review is going to be partial. I’ve discovered that with careful scheduling and a knowledge of some shortcuts between stages in Golden Gate Park, I can absorb about a dozen acts a day with reasonable comprehension. Then I just hope I don’t miss anything too cool (don’t even bring up Emmylou’s appearance as the Coward sister during a T-Bone and Elvis gig as the Coward Brothers in a previous year). With that in mind, here’s my list of best performances.
Best HSB Performance
I don’t know how you top Elvis Costello with Bill Kirchen, Austin DeLone, Fats Kaplan and others as the backup band. Well, except when Emmylou and Jim Lauderdale came out and joined them for “Love Hurts” and “Peace, Love, and Understanding”. And then he did an encore with the Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir. Sadly, a large part of the audience was there to see the next act, Gogol Bordello, and were somehow bored with anything not gypsy-punk. Sigh. The problem with free is they’ll let anyone in…. I also have to mention Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women. In a lineup that can only happen at a shindig like this, his band included Laurie Lewis, Sarah Brown, Christy McWilson, Nina Gerber, Cindy Cashdollar and a couple of others I didn’t catch.
Bringing a Tuba to a Banjo Fight
The Bad Livers played one of their infrequent shows, resplendent with Mark Rubin playing tuba in place of stand-up bass for several numbers and Danny Barnes doing his usual top notch job of banjo picking. They even did some busking later in the day out on the concourse. Honorable mention has to go to Jon Langford who opened up Sunday morning on the Rooster stage with heavy metal guitar and the previously mentioned Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir. Kind of like Ozzy Osborne with the Happy View Assisted Living Chorus doing sea chanteys. You had to be there.
Sunday Hallelujahs and Amens
I already noted the choir over on Rooster, but even better for first thing on a Sunday morning was Poor Man’s Whiskey on Arrow Stage. A California band that plays all kinds of Americana, they were duded up in mariachi costumes. It took a couple of numbers for some of the audience to wake up, but I swear by the 3rd or 4th tune they had 10,000 people dancing their hangovers away. There’s no way to leave this topic without mention of Ralph Stanley. With the success of “O’ Brother”, I’m sure almost everyone there knew who Ralph was. But the fact he got 50,000 people to shut up and listen slackjawed while he sang a capella is a testament to talent (Robert Plant was spotted back stage taking a picture of Ralph. If he asked for an autograph, we know who’s the man). You’ve heard the phrase “a hush fell over the crowd”, well that’s it in a nutshell.
When In Rome
When playing in a park in San Francisco, it’s hard to go wrong with 60’s psychedelia. My nod for nailing this one to the wall goes to The Waybacks with an unbelievable performance of the Dead’s “St. Stephen” and a way cool take on a Jefferson Airplane number I can’t quite put my finger on. Moonalice did a take on Procol Harem and Ten Years After, and Elvis Costello did a fine, fine version of “Friend of the Devil”. Oh, and if you weren’t already in the mood, the brownie lady wandering through the crowd would feed your head for a nominal fee.
Alison Brown takes this one running away. Is it bluegrass, is it jazz, I don’t know but it transcends all of that. And to highlight the highlight, they finish up with Alison picking a mean streak while fiddler Joe Craven plays bongo’s on the sound board of Alison’s banjo. Whew, what an adrenaline rush as a closer. Second place in this category goes to Warren Hood and James Nash of the Waybacks. They can jam like nobody’s business, and if Alison hadn’t been on the bill they would easily take the category.
Let’s see, what did I miss. Jimmy Dale Gilmore put on a fine performance. It was even better coming on the heels of Tift Merritt. Tift is a fine performer, but a show that wows a hall or club that seats 1000 doesn’t always play to an open air audience of 10,000. Jimmy Dale’s band and song selection reflected the venue and the whole performance came off beautifully.
Finally, no review of HSB can be complete without a tip of the hat to Warren Hellman, the philanthropist who puts on the whole show as a free event. Bows and choruses of “we’re not worthy” to you, Warren.
About the author: I've actually driven from Tehatchapee to Tonopah. And I've seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night.