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
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
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.