Shay Quillen reports from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
It was a tale of two stages.
As the sun neared the horizon in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, the Time Jumpers – including country superstar Vince Gill — were playing Western swing music with casual virtuosity and plenty of aw-shucks charm for a couple hundred souls scattered on the vast expanse in front of the Towers of Gold Stage.
Immediately behind, cops warily watched as a young, unruly mob wildly overflowed the lawn in front of the Star Stage for an explosive performance by Gypsy punks Gogol Bordello that provided undeniable thrills but also the unmistakable feeling that things had gotten a little out of hand.
It was a telling moment near the end of the 13th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which began as a one-day, two-stage showcase for American acoustic music and has evolved into an overwhelming three-day, six-stage extravaganza that offers something for everyone, but perhaps at the expense of some of the original harmony and community.
Make no mistake, the free festival remains a marvelous thing, and as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell closed out the Banjo Stage with a lovely set, music fans could turn to gape at a picture-perfect sunset over the park that would have seemed over-the-top if this had been a movie. Yet the exuberant whoops from the nearby stage where jam band the String Cheese Incident was performing nearly drowned out the gentle duet of ‘Old Yellow Moon’ that closed the show.
As with the delightful Time Jumpers set, the size of the audience often didn’t match the quality of the music. Some of the most special and heartfelt music on Sunday came from the Kate McGarrigle tribute, held before a downright paltry crowd on the Rooster Stage. The billing, “With Martha & Sloan Wainwright and Special Guests,” didn’t promise much star power compared with the competition – they were beginning just as Hollywood’s No. 1 banjo man, Steve Martin, wrapped up his set with former pop star Edie Brickell on the Banjo Stage. But the assemblage of talent proved to be as impressive as any seen all weekend.
After a couple of iffy performances by Martha and Sloan with the under-rehearsed band, the magic started to happen, with performances by Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris (“Mendocino”), Maria Muldaur (“The Work Song”) and, most poignantly, Steve Earle going way outside his comfort zone to perform “Go Leave” while the man who inspired it, Loudon Wainwright III, listened from the side of the stage.
“It’s bad enough that I’m Kate’s ex,” cracked LWIII after singing “Come a Long Way” with old pal Richard Thompson. “Now I feel like I also split up with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle.”
After the rough-hewn, organic music at the McGarrigle tribute, we went straight to the polished and sparkly sounds of local boy Chris Isaak, who claimed to have walked to work that day from his house three blocks away. He’s found deserved success on his own terms, staying true to his untrendy Elvis- and Orbison-inspired sound, and standing by his fine band for 30 years. An Isaak show remains one of the surest things in showbiz, and he did not disappoint, leaving everyone smiling.
The other standout set on Sunday was Richard Thompson early in the day at the Towers of Gold Stage. In keeping with the spirit of his latest recording, Electric, Thompson had his Stratocaster out and was ready to rock in a power-trio setting with drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Produniak. Thompson unspooled one sinewy, snarling solo after another on material from the new album and older classics (“Did She Jump or Was She Pushed,” “For Shame of Doing Wrong”), but got his warmest response, unsurprisingly, with a solo acoustic rendition of the timeless “Vincent Black Lightning 1952.”
The big event on Saturday was the return to the stage of Natalie Maines, last seen fronting the monumentally successful Dixie Chicks. It was immediately clear this was going to be something quite different, as Maines emerged with hair severely shaved on the sides, spike heels and a short black skirt to sing Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” the title track to her first studio effort since the Chicks’ 2006 Grammy-winning “Taking the Long Way.”
Maines’ voice is a marvel, and the first 30 minutes of the set were thrilling, as she blasted through songs by Eddie Vedder, Patty Griffin and, most audaciously, Jeff Buckley, with a nearly note-for-note re-creation of his virtually uncoverable “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” Yet despite her killer voice and ear for a good song, she failed to show a compelling artistic vision that would make her a significant solo artist, and the set petered out after its early promise. Still, when she shuts up and sings, it’s impossible to ignore her.
The Maines set followed a wonderful performance by Los Lobos on the adjacent Towers of Gold Stage, billed as “Los Lobos Disconnected.” A welcome dose of electricity was provided by Boz Scaggs, however, who brought his ax and his soulful voice for a version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” that had even the security guards grooving and might have been the high point of the weekend.
The other standout for me on Saturday was the set on the small Porch Stage by Mike Scott and fiddler Steve Wickham of the Waterboys. Not a lot has been heard from the Scottish band in the past 20 years, but Scott came out swinging with “Savage Earth Heart” from the band’s 1983 debut, strumming hard on a 12-string and getting lost in the lyrics while Wickham added exquisite Irish fiddle. He’s still got it.