Sunday, October 14, 2007

Catfish at the bluegrass festival with a half million other people, part one

Blogging things a week late is never good form, but the price extracted for my tremendous San Francisco vacation was way too much work and stress immediately upon return. Plus, most of my computer time since has been devoted to tracking down bootlegs of the performances I saw, with surprisingly good luck.

It was a relatively unplanned vacation, all starting with an email from Freaktown saying that I should do everything in my power to make it to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Yeah right, thought I, noting that it’s barely a week before my long-planned swing to the East Coast and short-notice airfare is as big a discourager as anything. But I kept looking over the list of artists: Jeff Tweedy, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, John Prine, Gillian Welch, plus a whole host of actual bluegrass legends. Had I never known it was coming I couldn’t possibly hate myself for missing it, but now that it was presented as an actual option, how could I not? So I searched out a decently priced flight, scammed an extra day off work and ultimately spent the whole weekend feeling like I’d won some damned contest.

I stopped and started writing this a few times, and at each step the words fell far short of the magic that I felt while listening to the music. But live music is like that – fleeting and powerful, at times transcendent and at times a buoyant current you ride for a while, and try to hang onto as it flows through you. At times during the performances I tried to see the music, to let my eyes fall somewhere, a tree or a bird or a section of the massive crowd, and watch it move, watch for moments it matched the music, as if the sound was a wind. Other times my own body was what got caught up in the tunes, more of a set of loose sways and twists than anything resembling an actual dance, but it was mostly bluegrass and that’s pretty much how I roll anyway.

Tweedy in particular was mesmerizing. One man, one guitar, one voice, an occasional harmonica, and a set of songs that stack up very favorably with anything every written or performed. I don’t say that lightly, or with hyperbole. It’s a very measured and purposeful statement, but everyone who stood near me as those songs washed over us in the dying afternoon, sunset and early dusk of a perfect San Francisco day in the park would agree.

I’ve long said that Remember The Mountain Bed – a collaboration across time and space between Tweedy and the legendary Woody Guthrie – is probably the best song ever written. I’ll just include one favorite verse, but measure the rest of the lyrics yourself here:

I learned the reason why man must work and how to dream big dreams
To conquer time and space and fight the rivers and the seas
I stand here filled with my emptiness now and look at city and land
And I know why farms and cities are built by hot, warm, nervous hands.

And in just the second song of Tweedy’s set I was absolutely thrilled, hanging on the transformative wisdom of the words and the intricate, hauntingly beautiful guitar work, all the while aware that I was in the midst of one of the greatest musical moments I’ve ever experienced.

Just as Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks is an album that comes stunningly close to offering a definition of life, “Remember The Mountain Bed” is a song that nearly circles the total of humanity. (And if you think Blood On The Tracks is a nothing but a brilliant break-up or divorce album, with songs of pain and sorrow, you’re sadly missing out on a great deal.)

Tweedy was in a great mood, joking throughout, with his kids sitting on the side of the stage and at one point he dedicated a song to his wife.

The set list was great, opening with Sunken Treasure. I loved the mix of stuff from throughout his career, from old Uncle Tupelo stuff to an almost forgotten Golden Smog song to the title track from the latest album.

In the crowd during the Tweedy performance, Freaktown and I recognized a guy who was in the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary during one part. It was unmistakable – he’s a record store owner in Santa Cruz who was backstage when Tweedy performed a show in San Francisco. He’s unmistakable, with a pretty thick beard that goes a bit further down the neck than most, and thick, straight, somewhat longish hair underneath a ball cap. It was so weird to actually see somebody from that movie in the crowd (having apparently many more viewings of the film under his belt, Freaktown also recognized somebody else, but I couldn’t place her), but then at one point this guy turned around and held his camera aloft to get a crowd shot. Holy shit, I thought, that guy from the movie now has a picture of us! For a while after that I let myself get lost in the trippy, circular ruminations around the fact that a perfect stranger and I both have documented proof of the other’s existence.

Taking the train over to the park Friday, Freaktown and I ran into SW practically the moment we boarded. Now there’s a little synchronicity to kick off the weekend, I thought. Then we met up with Tony and found our way in just before T-Bone Burnett started. We knew his special guests were Neko Case and John “Cougar” Mellencamp (never forget the “Cougar” part), but how that was going to all tie together was beyond any of us. Neko played Hank's Alone and Forsaken and another one I didn’t recognize. After a few more, out came the Coug (“The COUG!" we shouted). There was some song about Jena, then the real highlight, “Pink Houses,” with what I can only guess is the first and last time Neko sings “Ain’t that America” to back the Coug. Nice.

Then after Tweedy we all headed down to the Haight for sausages and beers, taking it easy with the knowledge of two more tremendous, long days of music ahead of us.

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