Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Recap

Everyone finds his or her moments to cherish over three days and 80 some bands. That sentiment stands out among the few music festival truisms. The moments are the memories, the reasons to put miles upon miles on your feet, fretfully scan schedules to make the tough calls between two favorites playing a half mile apart at the same time, and make so many people agree to come together, to make a silent pact to enjoy it all as much as possible.

Those moments are why people play music, listen to music and find joy in a fellowship that extends from the artist on stage straight through the crowd to the very back, which in this case felt like it stretched clear to the Pacific Ocean.

They're both intensely personal and communal - communal between a small group of friends or tens of thousands of like-minded strangers - sown amid a brew of exhaustion and elation that can only be found at a gargantuan music festival. Here are my moments from the 2009 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival:

• Tom Morello closing out his Nightwatchman set with "This Land Is Your Land," joined by Steve Earle, Allison Moorer and even Boots Riley. Woody Guthrie and his towering spirit were prevalent through much of the festival, but I felt him strongest during that song, singing "From California..." along with the rest of the crowd, and following Morello and Earle in an all-crowd jump-along.

• John Prine's voice ain't what it used to be, but he warmed up amazingly well during his set, which was laced with humor and grace. "Angel From Montgomery" was another heart-swelling sing-along for me.

• I'd never seen Lyle Lovett before, and damn if his voice live is even richer and smoother than on any record I've heard. "If I Had A Boat" is the song that'll stick in my mind, but Lyle's Large Band blew me away every song with their Texas Swing, blending honky-tonk, blues and gospel like a thick stew.

• Saturday's first big priority was Okkervil River, but on stage before them was the legendary Buddy Miller, and he was joined by Emmylou Harris (holy shit!) and then Robert Plant (holy shit!!!).

• Okkervil is better than ever - energetic and beaming with a lively sort of poise that's developed slowly in the six years since I first saw the band. "Westfall" is a live treasure, like always, but I'm falling more and more for the latest album - "Lost Coastlines" in particular - each time I see the band play.

• I left our Towers of Gold homebase to catch Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women, who tear shit up. I interviewed Alvin for my Hardly Strictly feature in the East Bay Express, and while they were on stage, I kept thinking about how he described The Guilty Women. An all-female band was a different direction for Alvin, no doubt, but they fit together on stage like they were born playing together instead of a one-off all-star team. Which makes it no surprise that Alvin & The Guilty Women are stronger than ever.

• It'd been eight years since I'd seen the Old 97's, but they haven't diminished a bit. If you can't sing along with "Barrier Reef," you can't sing along with anything.

• Unless you stake out a place for the main Banjo Stage by about 11 a.m., you're going to be nowhere near the stage. But a less-than-ideal spot for Gillian Welch is still amazing. I wanted to see her Fillmore set the night before the festival began, but it was sold out. Gillian, David Rawlings and Emmylou Harris teaming for "Didn't Leave Nothing But the Baby" is always going to be excellent.

• The cold and the wind hit with vigor just before Steve Earle hit the stage, and the day's Tecates were taking their toll, so I sadly have to admit that Saturday's closing set was spent mostly shivering, and being glad I saw Earle in August so I didn't feel like I missed out on too much.

• After his early Sunday set, I'm more convinced than ever that Elvis Perkins has put out this year's best record. "Doomsday" brought me chills at 12:30, and that's saying a ton.

• I broke away from a completely enjoyable Dr. Dog set to trek across the park and settle in for Billy Bragg, who had the best performance of the festival, hands down. Opening with "Help Save The Youth of America" and hitting several Woody Guthrie high notes, Bragg was everything I was hoping for the first time I saw him. "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" will always be one of my top-5 favorite songs.

• The crowds (estimated about 750,000 over the weekend) started taking their toll on me and the crew about that point, and several friends called it quits before the Neko Case set. I was glad I stayed, but from the excessively far distance, it's hard to say much about her performance. The setting sun, however, put a memorable glow in her red hair, and it was all worth it to hear my favorite songs from her new album, "I'm An Animal" and "People Got A Lotta Nerve."

• Then it was once again time for Emmylou Harris, the queen of Hardly Strictly. And for some reason (Monday morning work, Saturday's horribly cold weather, who knows?) the park emptied quite a bit, so were were able to get closer to Emmylou than were for any other act that entire day. "Pancho & Lefty," "Shores of White Sands," and "Return of the Grievous Angel" were all stunners, but I have to agree with the Hardly Strictly booker Dawn Holliday, who told me that he favorite moment of the festival is when the sun is going down and Emmylou is singing "Red Dirt Girl" - "I could stay in that moment forever," she said.

And those are the moments.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Slow Doomsday
Dr. Dog - My Old Ways
Okkervil River - Westfall (live)

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