One of the many wonderful things about living in San Francisco is the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, held each autumn in Golden Gate Park. Last year 800,000 people attended what is surely the greatest free concert anywhere in the world.
I didn’t get a chance to make it down Friday due to work, but I did get down to Speedway Meadow today, when the festival really takes off. First off for me was Kinky Friedman at the Rooster Stage. Kinky is many things – mystery novelist, essayist, animal rescuer, failed politician – but before all that, he was a country musician. I’d seen the Kinkster perform solo acoustic a few times, but this was my first seeing him with a band – an iteration of his old backing group The Texas Jewboys. With him today were “Little Jewford” Shelby, “Washington” Ratso and legendary Texas guitarist Buddy Miller. Kinky did a selection of his own classics, including “Homo Erectus”, which I’d been dying to hear with a band, as well as covers of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “Ramblin’ Boy”. Ratso took the mic for covers of Hank Williams “Jambalaya” and Billie Joe Shaver’s “Fast Train to Georgia” but the musical highlight of the set was Jerry Jeff Walker – described by Kinky as the “second biggest asshole in Texas” – joining in a rousing version of “Asshole From El Paso”. While we were treated to many of the Kinkster’s old chestnuts, he threw in a few new jokes – “I favor limiting all politicians to two terms. One in office and one in prison.”
Next up was Richard Thompson. In an illustration of both the great talent list HSB gathers and the agonizing choices it demands, I had to bypass David Grisman and Jerry Jeff’s own set for RT. I was tempted to see Grisman as I’ve seen RT three times now. But Richard is one of those musicians I just can’t pass up. For one, every incarnation is so different – the solo acoustic, “Thousand Years of Popular Music”, and today, with a full band. For another, RT is simply an astonishing songwriter and guitarist. He writes songs of brutal savagery and rapier wit, and is equally deft both on acoustic guitar and his Fender Telecaster – make that spectacular. His band was superb, especially Pete Zorn. Zorn provided backing vocals and played his usual astonishing array of instruments, including 4 (tenor, alto and soprano sax and guitar) on the highlight of the set, “Tear-Stained Letter”.
Finally, I wrapped up my day with Bonnie Prince Billy, AKA Will Oldham. I was only able to catch half his set due to the timing of RT’s show, but it was my first time seeing BPB. He’s an interesting character – sort of an odd, cosmic troubadour with a bit of a Southern flavor. I knew his music but it carries a strange poignancy live. I look forward to seeing him again, for a full set.
Tomorrow – Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, among others. More later.