Sunday in San Francisco and the final day of Warren Hellman’s amazing gift to the city and the music world, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The first indelible image of the day was the cop climbing a hill with a box full of confiscated bongs.
Today I bookended my visit (after an intolerably long search for a parking space) with some strictly bluegrass. I arrived in time to catch the tail end of Hazel Dickens’ set. She’s considered, along with Emmylou Harris, the spiritual mother of Hardly Strictly. And she’s as authentic as it gets, though age has certainly slowed her a bit.
I staked out a spot and settled in for Randy Newman at the Towers of Gold stage. Newman is a fascinating figure – a composer of both pop masterpieces and instrumental soundtracks (to which he has devoted most of the last twenty years). He’s a very funny man, and perhaps best-known for his hilarious pop songs. But he’s also capable of incredibly heartfelt, moving and overtly sentimental songs about romance and other kinds of love. In that sense he reminds me of Kinky Friedman. He gave us some of the big hits – “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, “I Love LA”, even “Short People” – and his most recognizable song for the younger set, “You Got a Friend in Me”. The best part of that offering was the narrative he gave along with it, sort of a misogynistic/self-serving summary of “Toy Story”. But the best moments of his set were his heartfelt songs – such as “Dixie Flyer” and the tremendously underrated “I Miss You” – an incredibly eloquent, honest and humble love song to his ex-wife. It speaks volumes of forgiveness, grace and decency.
Next up was a festival regular, Elvis Costello. He’s here every year in one form or another, and like Richard Thompson can be something of a chameleon. Unlike RT, though, Elvis is a passionate interpreter of other folks songs. That can be fascinating but a little frustrating when you love Elvis in his basic, rock ‘n roll incarnation singing his own brilliant compositions. We heard him today with a band including the likes of Jim Lauderdale, dobro legend Jerry Douglass and Elvis stalwart and super-drummer Pete Thomas. It was a country-themed set, with only four or five Elvis compositions – and none of his signature classics. He gave us some interesting covers – John Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, his classic cover of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”, etc. It was a little bit of a mixed bag of a set – it would have been nice to hear him rock out on one or two of his classics at least. Even for his encore he reached deep into the cover pile for “Happy” – the Keith Richards composition that you normally only hear when Mick Jagger is back stage shooting up (with B-12, of course). When your encore is a cover of a Stones’ song that Mick doesn’t even sing, you certainly aren’t pandering.
I closed my day with another festival regular and bluegrass legend, Del McCoury and his band. McCoury and his band (consisting mostly of his sons) are as polished and tight as it gets – true bluegrass pros. Their “Nashville Cats” is a great example of his unique ability to be slick and authentic at the same time. It’s awesome stuff. He made a whole new generation of fans with his amazing cover of Richard Thompson’s opus “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” – a song I’ve heard both artists play at HSB – and that displays this band’s amazing ability to contemporize bluegrass and still be true to its roots.
It’s hard to overstate just how great this festival really is. Warren Hellman – not a bad banjo picker he – has endowed this festival in his will with enough cash to run for many years after his death. It’s becoming more popular certainly – and that does take away a bit of the homemade charm. But it’s still an amazing experience – to watch the different vibes at the stages (hard-core bluegrass crowd at the Banjo, young SF hipsters at Star, etc) and just see an amazing array of talent. To see four singer-songwriters like Kinky, RT, Randy Newman and Elvis over two afternoons is a remarkable experience. This festival is one that really makes you wish human cloning were possible – I’d like to be in four places at once for these three days. Thanks, Warren – we owe you one, big-time.