Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Elvis Costello: It's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Last weekend marked the 10th anniversary of the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, philanthropist Warren Hellman's million-dollar bash of a gift to the city of San Francisco. Hardly Strictly has turned into one of the country's premiere music events. This year, I finally took the opportunity to check it out.

About 600,000 music fans, including an estimated 350,000 fans alone on Sunday, flocked to the western end of Golden Gate Park over three days, spread out over six stages, and saw more than 60 music acts celebrating music that was hardly strictly bluegrass.  In fact, not only was bluegrass showcased, but also traditional folk, blues and rock, even jazz.

Gridlock at the Star Stage:
Elvis Costello and the Sugarcubes perform Sunday afternoon
during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at Golden Gate Park.

This year's stellar line-up of performers, many of them annual invitees, included:  Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, Boz Scaggs, Roseanne Cash, the Avett Brothers, Nick Lowe, Earl Scruggs, Buddy Miller, the Del McCoury Band, Ralph Stanley and Trombone Shorty.  (A complete line-up for the 2010 festival can be found at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival website.)

It was Sunday afternoon's main event, Elvis Costello on the Star Stage, which drew my interest and got me out of the house on a day that I easily could have stayed put in front of the TV watching the Giants clinch the National League West title with their 3-0 victory over the San Diego Padres.  However, I had endured too much baseball torture ~ a pair of agonizing Giants losses ~ over the previous 48 hours and needed a change of scenery.

Setting out late Sunday morning via BART and the Muni Metro N-Judah train, my wife and I arrived at Golden Gate Park about two hours before the start of Elvis Costello's set.  We meandered through the festival grounds, catching portions of sets by Hazel Dickens on the Banjo Stage and the Indigo Girls on the Rooster Stage, before descending upon Lindley Meadow, site of the Costello get-together.  Overhead, morning fog lingered and a slight breeze blew in from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

The scene at Lindley Meadow:
There was plenty of green space to spread out and enjoy
the set by jam band Umphrey's McGee.

We packed a mini picnic of snacks, including cheese curds, grapes and cookies.  We checked out a variety of food vendors and settled on baked potatoes with all of the trimmings and, later, grabbed a bag of caramel corn to snack on.  Much to our surprise, there was a flock of cafe tables and folding chairs nearby, and we found an empty one that became ours for the rest of our afternoon at the festival.  As we settled in and enjoyed our lunch, the jam band Umphrey's McGee began their 50-minute set.  We listened with casual interest. Across town, the Giants were taking the field at AT&T Park to face the Padres in the final game of the regular season. The fog started to lift and the sun, finally, made an appearance. Good omen of things to come?

Not surprisingly, there would be about an hour's break after Umphrey's McGee completed their set before Elvis Costello and the Sugarcubes would settle in on the Star Stage, giving ample time for the meadow to fill up.  The stage stood in close proximity to the Towers of Gold Stage, where Randy Newman performed.  His set would bridge the gap until 3:05 p.m., when it was Costello's time to entertain the masses.

As a favor, the audio from Newman's set, which started with the ever-popular "Short People," was piped over the Star Stage sound system, so there was no need for us to leave.  It's a good thing we didn't because the green grass of the Lindley Meadow filled in quickly during the two o'clock hour. We perused sections of the Sunday New York Times that we packed and periodically checked the Giants score on the radio to pass time. They had taken an early 2-0 lead against the Padres.

The Lindley Meadow scene changed during the 2 o'clock hour as
the crowd began filling in the green space in anticipation
of seeing Elvis Costello and the Sugarcubes.

I'm not sure what it is about Elvis Costello that draws the biggest crowds year after year at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. However, his set caused a major gridlock around the Star Stage area, and Costello was, arguably, the day's biggest single draw.  A few brave fans even climbed nearby trees in search of a prime view afforded by sitting on sturdy limbs.  A portion of the sloping meadow near the stage also was jammed with eager fans.

Although we sat at least 100 yards from the stage, we packed a decent pair of binoculars and the nicely-amplified sound system enabled us to hear with clarity what we could always see clearly.

The Star Stage's nicely-amplified sound system enabled us
to hear Elvis Costello and the Sugarcubes with clarity what
our eyes couldn't always see clearly.

The dapper and cheery Costello and the Sugarcubes, his seven-piece backing band that featured Jim Lauderdale on guitar and backing vocals and Jerry Douglas on dobro, took the stage on time, and from 3:05 to 4:10 p.m., they played a nicely-crafted, 15-song set that included some of Costello's new, recent and classic material as well as songs by the other Elvis (Presley), the Beatles, Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones.  

Costello's newest album, "National Ransom" hits U.S. stores and iTunes on November 2, and several songs from it were prominently displayed during his set, including: "National Ransom," "Jimmy Standing in the Rain," and "A Slow Drag with Josephine."  The set started with the classic "Mystery Train," and included a nice medley of his "New Amsterdam" that segued into the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," as well as one of my favorites, "Brilliant Mistake." It concluded with an encore of the Stones' "Happy" that left everyone feeling, well, happy.  The Giants game ended at about the same time, and as the 3-0 final score was announced from the stage as Costello and the Sugarcubes took their final bows, more happy cheers echoed throughout the meadow.

Patti Smith performing Sunday afternoon on the
Towers of Gold Stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

As we walked around the perimeter of the Towers of Gold Stage on our way out of the festival, we could see (and hear) Patti Smith performing before a gathering of thousands down in the meadow as the late afternoon sunshine segued to fog, again.  The weather had gone full circle.

Beyond, as we circled the old polo field heading toward the park's exit, we could hear an echo in the distance. It was coming from the Del McCoury Band.  We paused for a moment to enjoy sweet music to our ears.

Bluegrass fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins.  We had come to the right place for the afternoon.

The set list for Elvis Costello and the Sugarcubes:
Mystery Train
Blame It On Cain
I Lost You
Medley: New Amsterdam/You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
(The Angels Want to Wear Your) Red Shoes
Brilliant Mistake
The Delivery Man
Jimmie Standing in the Rain
A Slow Drag with Josephine
Friend of the Devil
Sulphur to Sugarcane
Don't Lie to Me
National Ransom
Encore: Happy

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2010.

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