Monday, October 15, 2007

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

After loading up with beers, Freaktown and I got into the park Saturday just in time to hear Guy Clark singing out LA Freeway on our way to catch James McMurtry on the way to John Prine. And in the only really large music festival I’ve attended, I immediately came to grips with all the concessions you have to make to time and space and crowds and hunger and restroom breaks and moods and everything. But I settled easily into the see-who-I-can-see-but-make-sure-the-festival-is-about-fun-and-friends mentality and let that drive everything. We met up with S and D and C and family and after the Flatlanders settled in on a few blankets in front of the main stage. (Thanks to those who staked out the place.) From there it was Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle. If my favorite song day one was Remember the Mountain Bed, day two’s was Gillian and David doing Queen Jane Approximately.

Many of the songs I enjoyed most during the festival were covers and I think that make perfect sense in the realm of bluegrass (and hardly strictly bluegrass) music. Country and folk have always been about the standards, with everyone of note giving his or her or their own interpretation of the great songs. While the songwriter may seem king in this arrangement, it’s really more about the performance. If everyone’s playing the same songs, that sets a level playing field and the better rendition comes out on top. And some songs are just perfect in a bluegrass festival setting. Walking back toward the main stage later Sunday, with a good bit of the festival under my belt, I just felt like Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere would be just perfect. And, no shit, within a half hour, Earl Scruggs and his boys were belting it out: “Ooh whee, ride me high, tomorrow’s the day my bride’s a-gonna come / Oh oh, are we gonna fly, down in the easy chair.”

And then there’s the universal truths offered by a lot of the best country and folk music. Steve Earle said it best as he was tuning between songs: “Same girl, different harmonica.”

We were down at the park Sunday in time to catch the Sadies, and just as I was sure she would, Neko joined in, singing Evangeline, with her in Emmylou’s role just forming a great bookend on that day. We were all looser with Sunday’s schedule, settling in a ways back from our main-stage camp of a day earlier. I ate the best corndog ever. A couple of us made a beer run after realizing that the day’s supply was woefully insufficient – and in doing so made a few bucks selling later on to fellow festival-goers as their own supplies dwindled. I ran over to see Dave Alvin on a smaller stage that seemed even more crowded. The boom operator there had a much easier time passing the camera right over the crowd, and I tried giving a different look or gesture each time it caught me. Maybe there’ll be a DVD of the festival, and thousands of people across the world will have documented proof of my existence…

Sunday was the heaviest bluegrass day, with David Grisman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson leading up to Emmylou. It was the first time I’d seen the legendary Queen of country-folk and her set was incredible (as I can prove to anyone with the bootleg I’ve snagged). Highlights were Pancho and Lefty, Red Dirt Girls and Sin City, but really the whole thing kept me moving in that half-dance thing I described earlier, a swaying, twisting, head-bobbing casual sort of shimmy thing.

I couldn’t have asked for better companions throughout, reconnecting with several people I’d hardly gotten to see in years and realizing why the hell I’m friends with all these awesome people to being with. Overall I feel as though I pulled some minor logistical miracles getting together so many people who I knew but didn’t or barely knew each other.

At the close of the festival we all assembled, stuffed too many people into a two-door Honda and then a studio apartment, ordered Burmese food and re-upped on some beer and Fernet. We listened to a Wilco bootleg I’d brought as a gift for my hosts, watched a bit of the Wilco documentary to zero in on that Santa Cruz record store owner, and talked about the city and life and Arizona and how so many people managed to start in Tucson and end up in San Francisco. I was invited a few times to move there, encouraged to make Bay City my home too, to take part in such notable occasions on a regular basis. What could be more convincing? What could make a better argument than those friends and that weekend? It’s hands-down the highlight of the year.

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