Welcome back to the Boulevard Ear, a regular feature on The Bay Bridged, where our man about town examines a community’s live music offerings. What is it like to be a show-goer whose experiences are dictated entirely by location? Follow Todd as he explores Bay Area music venues by neighborhood, finding a variety of independent music along the way.
The post-Hellman era of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass began with a lineup heavily weighted towards old favorites, though not lacking in coverage of the up and coming. However, the years have taught us that it is not about the slate: we are constantly surprised by those who disappoint as well as those who surpass expectations.
In other words, who delivers? And this has always been a curious phenomenon. The festival has become a nationwide, if not worldwide draw. The quintessential HSB triumph involves a band or musician recognizing what a rare and significant opportunity they have attained, and bringing it any way they can. Who wouldn’t?
Oddly, many. For while the stage is large and the listeners charged, the festival yet draws the sort of roots musicians who can always convince themselves that it’s a perfect day for their evocative, moody set. So without further reflective exposition, let us briefly survey: who knew what the occasion demanded, and dignified their post?
Sonny and the Sunsets deserve a slot at the festival every year, as our local roots poet rock nonpareils. One cannot say they faulted on their chances. Points are awarded for the presence of Ryan Browne and Tahlia Harbour, who have not always been in the live lineup of late. The crowd was convinced by their set-ending rendition of “Teenage Thugs,” so we say to them, yeah.
Bettye LaVette offered an almost Escher-like paradox as regards our criteria: She was in tight form, and, after the tepid Freakons set, brought the crowd to a boil for the first time. However, she simultaneously served up a pummeling dose of her signature bitterness. She introduced each song by berating the audience for not making it a hit, then ruefully agreed to sing it all the same. In a similar dualism, she scored a KO for knowing her audience with a smoking version of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” and then careened into pandering with a plodding rendition of Young’s “Heart of Gold” minutes later.
Loudon Wainwright III treated his set at the Rooster Stage more or less like Sunday afternoon at his local cafe, but that’s his brand. It could not transcend the soul crushing claustrophobia of the Rooster Stage.
Elvin Bishop, on the other hand, took all honors for the day. His voice and playing proved sharp, his band impeccable, and, instead of embodying mothballed Marin rock nobility, he showed off his entire half-century of showmanship at a zesty gallop. When he topped off his jazz-inflected set with cheery recollections of Speedway Meadow at the Human Be-In, he cemented his place at the top of the afternoon.
The Wainwright family, unfortunately, locked up day-one regrets with Martha Wainright‘s hoarse, businesslike set at the Porch Stage. She seemed to absorb and surrender to the crowd’s languor from the pestering heat. But honestly, it’s Bluegrass. Don’t you want to bring one or two band mates?
Day two saw the mercy of latticed clouds, and more gentle temperatures. The Ahllah-las signaled a hotter musical trend, however, with tart soloing and ample backing vocals.
Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers raised the ante, especially when Boz Scaggs – and a horn section – joined them onstage for “Lido Shuffle.” (That’s two points for Marin Rock Royalty). Bluhm has been active in the Bay music scene for some time. She and her band squeezed every drop of energy and emotion out of her moment on the big stage.
Richard Thompson has played the festival solo before, and we admit to having been less than transported. So his electric trio’s driving, angry urgency was a surprising thrill. His playing hearkened back to his earliest work with Fairport Convention, as well as his early 80’s gold.
The heat and crowd density peaked by the start of The Devil Makes Three‘s set, but unlike others who wilted, they acted as a polished refracting mirror, driving the heat ever higher with each song. They embodied the guiding vision of the festival – traditional yet contemporary, tight yet loose, and committed to the delirium of a massive house party.