Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Day One

Yo La Tengo in full flight
A freak spell of Indian Summer and a banishment of Karl The Fog from the environs set the stage for this years edition of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, rendering it warmer than Outsidelands, held on the same grounds back in August. The civic gift, a living monument to the late Warren Hellman and his love of music, offered an embarassment of riches at absolutely no cost. Stretching my mind to think of anything done free anywhere else in the country on this scale, and coming up with a blank. We are blessed, and day one got things started with a bang; the underlying theme for the day being idiosyncratic artistry.

Last time we caught up with Waxahatchee, it was a solo show in NY, on the cusp of a well-earned summer vacation. Tanned, rested, and ready, Katie Crutchfield is back in action, with this being the sole west coast appearance on a string of fall dates leading up to a new LP. Joined by Keith Spencer, she did a slimmed down version of what's become the Crutchfield Songbook, touching all the bases, and giving a preview of new songs. Opening with "Grass Stain" from American Weekend and closing with Cerulean Salt's closer "You're Damaged", it was a potent survey of one of the country's finest singer/songwriters.

Senses awakened, it was party time, and who better to up the ante than the one and only Buckwheat Zydeco, who's enthralling set of Cajun tunes got bodies moving despite the heat, and the accordion king, now in his mid 60's, never let up. Returning to Golden Gate Park two months removed from a triumphant performance at Outsidelands, Jonathan Wilson showed off his crack band, keeping the emphasis on the jams and his most recent LP, Fanfare. Kicking off with "Future Vision", he never looked back, moving through a rollicking version of "Love To Love", and hitting the high point with a long, but sharply focused "Dear Friend".

What was billed as a reunion of the battling Alvin Brothers, seen rarely on stage together since their Blasters heyday in the mid 80's, turned into something much more. Spurred on by Phil's recent grave illness, the brothers have put it behind them, releasing Common Ground, their take on the songs of Big Bill Broonzy. Gaunt, but feisty, Phil joined Dave Alvin and his Guilty Men for a rousing set spiked by Phil's harmonica workouts and Dave's stinging guitar. A casual mention by Dave of the day marking the birthday of the late Chris Gaffney, Dave Alvin's longtime touring partner, put the whole set in a different light, and every song thereafter took on an extra dimension of intensity.

The twisted NYC art crew Cibo Matto threw down on the Arrow Stage, joined by guitar wizard Nels Cline. The reunion of Miho Hatori and Yuko Honda ended up bearing the fruit of this year's Hotel Valentine, and their electric set brought the crowd in. The chemistry between the two remained intact and it was a delightful set, that with much regret I truncated to dash across to catch Lucinda Williams. For whatever reason, she didn't hit the stage until close to half an hour after her scheduled time, so it was with regret that I walked away from her set. I was quite looking forward to hearing live renditions of songs from her sprawling new masterpiece Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. It was the only blot on an otherwise inspiring day.

In a contrarian way, Hoboken, NJ's own Yo La Tengo brought their noise shoes to a bluegrass fest, erring heavily on the volume dealer side, while make room for a few shimmering gems. While confounding some of the more roots-oriented audience members, their skills could not be denied, and their latest LP, Fade, remained the template for what they were trying to express, loud and soft. The dichotomy was perhaps best expressed by their take one of their finest pop moments, "Stockholm Syndrome", (captured below), wherein Ira drops a devastating 30 second feedback blast into the middle. Finishing off the set with guest spots from Cibo Matto's Yuko Honda and Roy Loney from the legendary SF garage rock band Flaming Groovies, it was a fitting capstone to the day.








Special guest #1: Yuko Honda (Cibo Matto)

Special guest #2: Roy Loney (Flaming Groovies)

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