Saturday, October 06, 2007

HSB Day One: Mellencamp heads day of guest stars

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass got off to a great start with outstanding Friday afternoon performances by Jeff Tweedy, Buddy Miller and T-Bone Burnett.

It was a day for guest appearances, and the highlight for me was Burnett's surprise guests (well they were posted on the festival website earlier in the day) John Mellencamp, Neko Case and Doyle Bramhall. With Burnett moving around the stage as the conductor of his big ensemble, the guests captured the spirit of the audience with Mellencamp's anthem "Pink Houses" and its compelling "Ain't that America" chorus.

Well, this was San Francisco, and the huge crowd of locals roared its approval, even as the Navy stunt aviators The Blue Angels flew maneuvers overhead.

"I know there is some ambivalence about the Blue Angels," Burnett said. "But this must be heaven if we have angels and grass."

Once again, Fleet Week in San Francisco coincides with HSB. Both attractions are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of attendees on Saturday and Sunday. Despite a move by some local council members to stop the air show, the aerobatic display will be highly visible and audible overhead over the next two days.

Mellencamp also made an impression with his new song, Gena, about the racial incident in Louisiana, recorded with Burnett and recently released over the Internet. Besides Mellencamp, Burnett, Case and Bramhall all took turns on lead vocals.
The other guest shots came during the preceding set by Buddy Miller. Alison Moorer and Jim Lauderdale joined Miller, the later for a rousing finale of the song they co-wrote, "Hole in My Head."

Miller's band featured gospel vocalist Gail West, a different but delicious match for Miller's voice than his duets with wife Julie Miller. The other highlight of Miller's set was his great version of Utah Philips' "Rock Salt and Nails."

The Friday closer was Jeff Tweedy, the Wilco frontman performing solo with folk guitar and harmonica. Tweedy delighted his many fans with his stage banter and tuneful songs. I was most reminded of NRBQ or even John Sebastian.

Tweedy played a long set include a four-song encore. Probably the high point was the catchy "California Stars," but I was impressed with the lyrics in songs like "She's a Jar" and "Passenger Side." He also tipped his hat to another comparison artist. "When things got weird, I started to grow my Bob Dylan beard," he sang.

The afternoon program at the Banjo Stage opened with Augie March, a folk-rock band from Australia, who I'll remember for next time. Not sure if the name is a reference to Saul Bellow.

Friday morning at the Star Stage, the festival ran its program with the San Francisco Unified School District, which brought 4000 school kids to the park for a program of music and fun. The Abram Brothers and Poor Man's Whiskey tried hard to interest them in bluegrass, but I'm not sure how many converts they made. Still the kids had a fun day.

The event was also used to recognize Daniel Pearl World Music Day. The parents of the journalist who was killed in Pakistan were on hand to accept a commemoration from the city of San Francisco.

Festival benefactor Warren Hellman was much in evidence--playing banjo with Poor Man's Whiskey, honoring Pearl, and formally opening the festival on Friday afternoon.

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