Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Day 1: This Is About Coming Together

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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Day 1
Oct. 2, 2010 
@ Golden Gate Park

Better than: chasing a fox out the hen house. 

San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
festival sings America. The annual outdoor concert is about coming together:
scores of rootsy musicians, a half-million or more concertgoers, BYO picnic treats
(adult beverages and brownies included). And it's all free and breezy -- a gift
from local financier Warren Hellman to the city, the bands, and the people.

This year's second day of fun American-style kicked off with Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands giving appropriate props to the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Kelly Willis then set a nostalgic tone with a six-string tunefulness that called to mind the zeitgeist of the nation back in the late 70's, when Americans reveled in their redneck roots. We're talking "Every Which Way But Loose," "Smokey and the Bandit," and "Dukes of Hazzard." Oh, we've come such a long way in terms of racial tolerance and respect for individual differences -- praise Jeeeesus! -- and yet there's something in this music that warms the heart. 

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March Fourth Marching Band
Perhaps that's merely heartburn or the aftertaste of iconic 'merican beers rising in the back of the throat -- Budweiser, Miller High Life, and Pabst Blue Ribbon (in the can, naturally) did make their requisite appearances in the park Saturday. But not for us. We opted for a shot or three of Old No. 7. We were not alone.

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Mekons frontman Jon Langford and his Skull Orchard band reminded us that Australia sings America, too. His roots-rich sound and old-school punk spirit was the Tabasco on our lunchtime biscuits and grits. He sang, "I tried religion but it wasn't any good at all." We know, Jon. What's the remedy? Sawing fiddle, heavy blues-steeped riffs, and bourbon-slugging grooves.

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Skull Orchard
We caught the tail end of Dry Branch Fire Squad's
white-hot smokin' set -- the kind of virtuosic string-pickin' that turned us on to
bluegrass in the first place. Far from hardly, this was strictly. If we'd been
hurtin', we'd have been healed.

Carolina Chocolate Drops followed Dry Branch. This show was significant for a host of reasons. First, CCD is arguably the hottest group on the old-time circuit today. Their songs in the string-band tradition date to the antebellum period, if you can believe that. The instruments include acoustic six-string, banjo, fiddle, jug, kazoo, and of course, backcountry vocals. The three musicians changed up instruments on various songs, even stepping away from their chairs at times to clog or softshoe to the buoyant rhythms.

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Carolina Chocolate Drops
This young North Carolina trio is committed to
preserving history not as a static artifact but as a living, breathing,
positive vibration that informs the way we move through our days. While the
combo started out resurrecting "Negro" tunes, they've recently expanded their
repertoire to include old-school Scottish "mouth music," sung a capella in
Gaelic, no less. These pieces spoke volumes about the unifying power of music.

Ex-punk Exene (frontwoman of the seminal L.A. band X) stirred up a So-Cal country vibe with her California Mothership combo. The highlight here was violinist Jessy Greene, whose haunting, almost psychedelic playing gave the music a dreamy lushness.

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Exene Cervenka & The California Mothership
Then silver foxes Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson brought legit country to the day's festivities, proving that when the tunes are done right, the phrase "I like all music, except country" is dead wrong. Such good times these fellas were having. Funny thing, Conor Oberst, the hipster darling of the day, seemed to be enjoying himself as well, despite the dark cloud looming over his murder ballads and bent chord voicings.

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Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson
The afternoon (for us) wound to a close with must-see HSB act: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. These string-slingin' songwriters were the downtempo queen and king of the festival. Their songs are slow but never lethargic, far from cheery yet somehow enlivening. When they sing, "It's too easy to feel good," we know exactly what they mean.

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Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
There's a sumptuous melancholy to their music that we want to take a bite out of. When we do, it fills us up with brightness, like that first moment reuniting with family after too long apart, before the whiskey is served, before all hell breaks loose.

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