Monday, October 20, 2008

Event Review: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Okay, I know, it's a little late but, hey, this is what happens when you're busy.

For the second year in a row the boyfriend was one of the onstage recording engineers for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and on Sunday he had the good luck to be working the stage with Ben Kweller, Elvis Costello, and Gogol Bordello, among others. I hauled myself down there in time to catch the end of Kweller's set, all of Costello's, and the very beginning of Gogol Bordello, and I have to say that, after some of the wretched excess of the LoveFest, it was a veritable balm for the soul.

Now, let's be straight and say that there were just as many people getting their party on at HSB as at Lovefest, but since they were dispersed over a very large section of Golden Gate Park, you didn't have the same sensation of being in the middle of a Bosch painting. Though no alcohol is sold at the event (certainly a good thing), plenty of people had bottles and cans in hand, and the fragrant scent of the chronic hung over the crowd. I saw several small groups of what I think of as hippie geek kids hanging out together, and I have no doubt that I had looked closely, I would have seen some mighty big eyeballs. What was different from LoveFest, though, was how quaint, almost traditional, this particular party scene was; after all, songs about drinking are a huge part of the blugrass/country repetoire, and we all know what jam band concerts are like. Perhaps it was because, at LoveFest, there is such a connection between sex and partying, and partying till you can't party no more, while Hardly Strictly Bluegrass seems to be more about the great enthusiasm one has for both the state of intoxication and the hangover that follows.

That enthusiastic embrace of even the most downbeat, bluesy aspect of life was what came across for me in Ben Kweller's performance. Wearing a red and black shirt lumberjack shirt with a denim vest and rockstar-tight jeans, with long curly hair, Kweller seemed like one of the many alterancountry hippy boys in the audience, the one who learned guitar and started writing songs and was as surprised as any of them would be to find himself up on the stage. He pretty much charmed the socks off me.

Elvis Costello, on the other hand, was the consummate, veteran performer who knew all the moves but came across as slightly empty. On one of the hottest days in San Francisco this year Costello came onstage wearing a hat, a scarf, a vest over a shirt, and a long coat. Though one person commented to me that he looked like The Penguin, I eventually came to think of his outfit as both costume and armor, something he put on to project a persona but was, in the end, something that kept you from seeing what was underneath. He opened up with "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" to remind everybody who he was, went through the routine of getting people to clap and sing along with his songs, but then, as he was switching guitars halfway through, he popped off at one of the monitor engineers - it was really quick, only four words said off to the side of the stage, and had I not been standing where I was and able to see the expression on his face, I might not have even noticed it, but it was an instant when I could see past the showman who had named his kids Dexter and Frank so they could be a Vaudeville Act to a rather dyspeptic curmudgeon underneath all those layers.

I got tired of standing and walked behind the stage to sit in the meadow as the sun set. There was a completely naked and unselfconscious boy of about three running around and playing with another boy his age, dogs hunting gophers, groups of hippy kids sitting together and climbing trees, an older couple sharing a pipe sitting in front of me, all bathed in a faintly hazy, enchanting light. I sat there and just mediated on the things in front of me, one of the most relaxing, idyllic scenes I had seen in quite a while.

The boyfriend got his lunch break after Gogol Bordello came on, so we wandered off in search of food. On the way out I came across buskers playing "Dirty Old Town" by The Pogues, and a two-piece band on the Rooster Stage playing a particularly poignant version of The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait" on guitar and mandolin. Both were unexpected delights, which pretty accurately sums up my entire experience of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.


Anonymous said...

Umm. that's Gogol Bordello. Although I would love to hear what GoGo Bordello would sound like

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Oops, of course it is, fixed now!

All I could tell you about them was that there were accordians; I was mostly intent on trying to find the boyfriend in the crowd and get some much-needed food and beverage.