Monday, October 08, 2007

HSB Day Three: Doc and Dawg set an old-timey tone

Back in the 50s, country music great Charlie Louvin served as a transition between old-time mountain music and country-based rock music. On Sunday, Louvin kicked off my Sunday at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass by putting country music in context, starting with classics from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, sprinkling in later material like Glen Campbell's "There Ought to Be a Hall of Fame for Mamas," and showcasing some of the great Louvin Brothers hits like "Baby Don't Cry."

What made the set relevant was Louvin's role as an inspiration for a generation of country rock performers, especially Gram Parsons, to whom Louvin paid homage. "San Francisco was Gram's old stomping grounds," Louvin noted. He also told a story about teaching a young Emmylou Harris how to sing Louvin Brothers harmonies.

As if to demonstrate, he offered the Louvins song "I Like the Christian Life," which Parsons brought to the Byrd's Sweetheart of the Rodeo record, and then finished with a rousing version of "Cash on the Barrelhead," which Parsons made a hit for the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Gram Parsons was one of the ghosts floating over the festival. Another was Jerry Garcia, who would have been the king of Hardly Strictly if he were still with us. I could easily imagine Jerry sitting down with both of the artists I would see coming up on the Banjo stage--first David Grisman and then Doc Watson.

Both were delightful. Grisman was pretty much pure bluegrass, first offering some straight-ahead Bill Monroe with his band, including his son Sam Grisman on bass fiddle, and then bringing out Curly Seckler, a first-generation bluegrass great, for the rest of his set.

Grisman said he had gotten to know Seckler 20 years ago, and had more recently acquired one of Seckler's old mandolins from his days with Flatt & Scruggs. Seckler was full of Hee Haw humor, which was pretty much lost on the audience, but he and Grisman delivered on some of old bluegrass standards, including "Salty Dog Blues," which rocked the mid-afternoon meadow.

Later on the same stage, Doc Watson dedicated his version of "In the Pines" to Grisman, noting that he had first met the mandolin whiz kid at Gerde's Folk City in the early 1960s. Watson's set was delightful, featuring David Holt as multi-instrumental sideman for the first half, and grandson Richard (Merle's son) as hotshot guitarist. Needless to say, Doc's own guitar work was not too shabby on "Shady Grove," "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and especially his signature "Deep River Blues."

Continuing the old-timey cast of the day, I had earlier caught most of the set by the always great Dry Branch Fire Squad. Ron Thomasson laid on his hillbilly shtick pretty thick, to typically hilarious effect, especially during his explication on the difference between folk and bluegrass festivals, ending with a rousing version of Utah Philips' "Take Us In."
Thomasson's live-and-let-live philosophy has led him to speak out on political issues in a blog and occasionally in performances. On Sunday, with Blue Angels flying maneuvers overhead, he simply remarked, "Now I feel safe." Festival financier Warren Hellman sat in on banjo for several songs with Dry Branch.

Rushing back to Rooster, I caught the last part of Jorma Kaukanen's set with Barry Mitterhoff accompanying on mandolin. It is always great to hear Jorma's versions of "Hesitation Blues" and "San Francisco Bay Blues," but the highlight was the early Garcia/Hunter "Dupree's Diamond Blues."

Finally for the bluegrass side, I caught two songs at the Porch Stage by Steep Canyon Rangers, who are a highly regarded bluegrass unit I hadn't seen before. In my short stay, I caught a hot fiddle number and a version of Shawn Camp's "Ain't No Way of Knowing" with great bluegrass harmonies by the guitarist and mando player.

Also, on Porch, I caught a partial set by an old favorite from Strawberrys past, Marley's Ghost. As always, they were eclectic with Western swing mixed with Warren Zevon and Tim O'Brien. I liked their own song, "Working in the Sugar Trade," with Dan Wheetman on the lead vocal.

With all that folk, old-time and bluegrass, my day was punctuated by several sets of rootsy blues rock from Dave Alvin & The Guilty Men and The Hacienda Brothers. The frontman for the latter band, Chris Gaffney, also plays accordion and sings harmonies for Alvin's ensemble. Both bands had the energy all cranked up for two sets of all-American rock and roll, especially as Alvin pulled out the stops for his two closing numbers, "Back to the Ashgrove" and "Marie Marie."

As the day wound down, I had made a decision to skip Emmylou Harris in favor of two last stops for Gandalf Murphy and Del McCoury. As it turned out, I ran into a friend at the Gandalf set and never made it for Del, where I evidently missed a guest appearance from Peter Rowan.

No matter. Gandalf is growing on me after seeing them three or four times. I let my festival end with a sidetrip to Slambovia, where yodeling is cool and there are flapjacks in the sky, and I went home happy.

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