It’s hard to say what was the best moment at the tenth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last weekend in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Maybe stretching out on a hill, looking up a trees and sky while Rosanne Cash sang songs from the list of important songs her late father, Johnny Cash, gave her. Maybe Del McCoury’s high notes or the Carolina Chocolate Drops revitalizing vintge 1930s string band music (music researcher/Oberlin alum Rhiannon Giddens dropped ina phenomenal a cappella Scots Gaelic number she learned while studying in the UK). Maybe “Guitar Town” from Steve Earle & the Dukes. Or T Bone Burnett’s jam fest where the quicksilverish Elvis Costelo introduced a new song he descirbed as how rock and roll was done in the 1920s (it sounded like cabaret to me).
As for old timers like Doc Watson, Hazel Dickens (the voice of West Virginia coal mining coutnry) and EArl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley was going strong at 83, ornamenting his voczls far more than he did in bygone decades. Like in his early days with his late brother Carter, his is a family band thanks to grandson Nathan (now moved from mandolin to guitar). “He’s 18 and never been murdered — I mean married,” Ralph joked, prehaps referring to the violence of his southwestern Virginia culture that lies within his regional music. The crowd danced happily has hapless Pretty Polly was tossed in to her grave. Nathan, by the way, looked rather goth, but when you think about it, his grandfather’s repertoire (“O Death,” “Man of Constannt Sorrow”) is Appalachian gothic.
Surprises abounded. Long-ago Blaster Phil Alvin joined younger brother Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women as “Marie” became Spanish language. Dave and Christy McWilson convereted Doris Day’s 1956 white-bread “Que Sera Sera” to pure rock with ad libbed verses about Dave himself. Whereas Day’s Eisenhower era orginal exuded optimism, Dave sees the song as fatalistic.
Allison Moorer and her older sister Shelby Lynne (nee Shelby Lynne Moorer) did their first public appearance as a duet act tentatively named Sissy. (When each one’s autobiographical lyrics refer to Sissy, it’s the other she’s talking about.) Besides their own songs (Allison’s Oscar-nominated “Soft Place to Fall”) they covered old Everly Brothers hits, opening and closing the set with a buoyant take on Kay Starr’s “Side by Side.”
Joan Baez largely retrenched to the trad ballads (“Lily of the West,” “House of the Rising Sun”)and apocalyptic Dylan material (“Farewell Angelina”) of her ’60s heyday. Good move.
Richard Thompson stretched out “Demons in Her Dancing Shoes” to close with English country dance music. It was an ironic ending given that the song’s setting (1960s crime-syndicate London) is such a far cry from the world of English country dance.
Of course, there were numerous references throughout the weekend to bluegrass’s stern o ld founder, the late Bill Monroe. McCoury and Peter Rowan, of course, had been in his Bluegrass Boys.
Needless to say, this report can’t include all the great acts that played. With six stages, you couldn’t be everywhere. People say Patti Smith was phenomenal.
One final delight was Portland, Oregon’s Marchfourth Marching Band, which woke up Sunday morning’s crowd with, besides their music, an amazing trio of acrobat/comedians on stilts.
And thanks to investment banker/bluegrass lover Warren Hellman for once again creating and footing the bill for this incredible festival.