The stages are about 300 yards apart and I’m standing at this point where you hear one band playing into one ear, the other band playing into the other. And for some reason the brain is able to process both. I’ve come here here because it’s the one bunch of porta-potties without a 25-minute wait to do my business.
I’m at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the prohibition against alcohol is enthusiastically ignored by everybody but me, who has taken the regulations at their word and arrived dry. Some part of me thinks, well, at least I won’t spend the whole day in line to pee. That was before I bought the 24-ounce Pepsi that went through me faster than a six-pack of Bud Light. At least two trips to loo-land and no buzz to compensate. Alas.
So I’m at this giant festival surrounded by thousands of people who came for the same reason: fine music that’s free (some rich guy pays for it all; I want to meet him and introduce him to my sister). We heard country legend Ricky Skaggs with a mad banjo picker, Texas icon Joe Ely with a mad guitar picker, and reformed junkie Steve Earle looking mad. Lately Steve has shaved off his beard, lost a bunch of weight and taken on the appearance of a disturbing third cousin of Steven King. With nature’s disguises removed, it’s plain to see: Steve’s done some scary shit and it shows.
Steve cannot seem to get it into his head that we have come to see him to escape the grating realities of the times we live in. He and his band play wonderful bluegrass riffs, he even provides a couple OH YEAH moments, but before too long he’s singing against war, singing against the oppressors of working people, singing against The Man. My inner redneck is screaming, “Copperhead Road!” I know this urge is wrong, I know he brought his bluegrass band and not the Supersuckers, and he will not play that song about the hitchiker going to New York City. I want the rocking, hell-raising Steve Earle but on this afternoon I’ve got the rootsy, self-righteous one. After Anti-War Dirge No. 3, the urge to scram early to beat the crowds to the bus stop is impossible to overcome.
At the bus, something cool happens: the fare box is broke and we get to ride all the way back downtown for free. Behind me I hear some graybearded old leftist extolling the Virtues of Public Transportation. I’m thinking: a free ride is always virtuous, but at some point they throw you off the bus.
Ok, now that the Steve Earle report out of the way, I can get on to the rest of the day. Let’s see, what else. OK: We haul our sawed-off lawnchairs all the way from Dublin to the park, an hour and a half of Bart and the Muni bus to get to the festival about 12:30 in the afternoon. There’s already a thousand people between us and the Grass Stage … we set up camp here because we want to see Dave Alvin, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Earle; the other is the Blue Stage (blue+grass=Bluegrass, clever eh?), where I’d like to catch some of the sets of Gillian Welch, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely. The real superstars, Emmy Lou Harris and Willy Nelson, will be there Sunday but we have no use for superstars.
As we get settled in, I hear faint wailing coming from the Blue Stage. It’s Gillian Welch (that’s with a hard G, I always want to call her Gilligan Welch), who sang that “Sirens” song with Alison Krauss in “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Gillian is probably about the age of a daughter of Loretta Lynn but sounds like the person who might’ve taught Loretta to sing about coal mines. She is seriously hardcore country in a way no other country singer dares to sing it today. I walk over and hear her singing “White Freightliner” and it brings tears to my eyes .. she has this searing voice that gives me a visceral chill down the spine. I don’t even care for her music that much, but damn, that voice gets to me. You know how in the movies they show grown men crying when they’re listening to opera? It’s like that. I have to leave before I start getting all weepy.
I head back over to the Grass Stage, where Melissa is contentedly working on a baby quilt she’ll donate to Stanford Hospital’s neonatal unit (She’s the First Vice President for Good Deeds in our household). It’s what the womenfolk used to do at bluegrass gigs, I suppose. She’s listening to the same music her grandfather listened to while milking the cows back in the 1940s and ’50s. It probably doesn’t appear that she’s having all that much fun but she insists she’s where she wants to be: in the sunshine, sewing on something, listening to old-timey music.
Around 2 p.m. Dave Alvin takes the stage. Dave looks like a worn-out old white guy and his Band of Guilty Men appear much the same. The sound is country but the roots are rock ‘n’ roll. Dave was a punk rocker and a rockabilly guy back when those words meant something in the late ’70s, and his set is the rockingest one of the day. He sings in this baritone that seems to combine a Merle Haggard and a George Jones who listened to a lot more rhythm ‘n’ blues in their formative years. He sneaks a bit of politics into his set … one song’s lyrics went something along the lines of “when I get rich I’ll buy me a recall election,” and his last words were, “Don’t forget to vote.” Why Dave Alvin is not the richest, most famous musician in America is a mystery to me. His sets are simply stunning.
Ricky Skaggs is next. His band plays a blazing bluegrass set that has people up and dancing like lunatics. It’s a reminder that bluegrass isn’t all banjos and fiddles and murder ballads and stories about working in the coalmines. Sometimes it’s more like rock ‘n’ roll, vibrant, boisterous stuff that sets the toes to tapping.
Awhile later I stopped in on Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s set. He has this long gray hair flying wild in the wind and this rough, drawn face that reminded me of a skeleton with the hair still on it. He sings in a high-pitched drawl that takes some getting used to. I’m too impatient and head back to the other stage. I know Jimmie Dale is highly respected back in Texas and I’m sure I should’ve given him another chance. For now though I’m lacking the patience for acquired tastes.
The last guy I want to see before Steve Earle comes on is Joe Ely, a mainstay of Texas country-blues. I saw Joe perform for 60 minutes one evening back in about 1989 and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. He has humor, enthusiasm and a smoking band with a slide guitarist who can bring tears to your eyes. Joe’s a natural born performer and knows how to draw the audience in. I suspect he wants people to remember having seen him. I head back over to the Blue Stage and get there in time for Joe’s first song, an epic tune about a lost cotton farm. I’m thinking, hey, he’s off to a good start. So I find a place by the sound mixing board, plop down on the ground and wait to be amazed. Then reality sets in: I’ve got most of Joe’s albums and know all the songs so well that it’s not really important all the sudden to hear him perform them. After a couple songs I’m back over at the Grass Stage, resting up for Steve. Joe, meanwhile, has about another half-hour to warm up the crowd, and every few minutes the roars get a little bit louder. By the time his set’s over it sounds like the 49ers winning the Super Bowl over there. I’m thinking: Joe pulled off another of his dazzlers and I missed it. Damn.
Meanwhile some funny and cool stuff is happening right in front of us. Somebody brought these huge hula hoops to the show, and these little girls, ages about 4 to 8, are trying like hell to learn to keep them aloft. They never do but it’s hilarious watching them try.
Another hilarious moment: A woman has this cute little black dog on a leash. I’m watching the little guy sniffing along somebody’s backpack on the ground. Nobody’s watching him except me, apparently, and my gaze is frozen while he lifts his leg and takes a leak on the backpack. His minder notices when it’s too late do do any good.
Well, those are the highlights. Only regrets are all the other pee-and-backpack moments I missed because I couldn’t be everywhere at the same time.