Crews were still assembling scaffolding and sound boards at a few of the stages in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park at 10:30 Friday morning when 13-year-old phenom fiddler Ruby Jane stepped out onto the Star Stage and kicked off the eighth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. “Get rhythm/When you sing the blues,” she sang into the mike, and judging by the wild dance moves going off down below, this crowd got it.
The school buses that had brought throngs of students from their city classrooms out to the park now lined the meadow where HSB founder Warren Hellman was throwing this kids’ party for the fourth year running. Ruby Jane was an able and fitting choice to lead off. “I wrote this next song,” she told her fellow middle schoolers, “when I was 9.”
Trained in classical violin from age 2 until 8, and immersed in bluegrass and old-time music ever since, Ruby Jane has developed the kind of technique and feeling that most adults only dream about. Not to mention her resume: She’s already played with Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Rhonda Vincent, and others.
Hellman, standing in the wings for most of the set, joined Ruby Jane and her band onstage for a number. “He’s going to play banjo with us on this one,” announced the young star. “I’m going to pretend,” confessed Hellman. To conclude her set, Ruby Jane led the young masses in a rousing “Mind Your Own Business”. The kids may or may not have heard of Hank Williams, but they certainly understand the song’s universal concept.
After her performance, the crowd grew restless. But Hellman – or, as someone called him, “the Santa Claus of San Francisco” – was there to assure them: “I’ve got good news and more news,” he said from the mike. “The good news is I’m not going to play any more banjo.” (Judging by the roar, they were cool with that.) “Also, please stay with your school and with your classmates. That’s all I have to say.” Then, doubling back, “Oh, and Hammer will be out in a minute.”
Yes, that would be MC Hammer. He came out with eleven dancers, some of whom I suspect picked up a few of their moves from the crowd. (Best moonwalk I saw all day was by a young representative of MLK Middle School.) But the kids loved the dancers, and Hammer was right in step. Even more, he explained away any strangeness around his involvement in a festival of this kind.
“When I woke up early this morning and someone said, ‘Where you going, Hammer?’ I said, ‘I’m going to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.’ He said, ‘That’s bluegrass, Hammer. What you gonna do about that?’ You know what I said? I said, ‘I’m gonna ‘Turn This Mother Out.’” A set of his staples followed. On “2 Legit 2 Quit”, Hammer called for 40 kids to join him onstage and dance, which they did with ecstatic rapture. The group hugs he gave out at the end of the song were especially touching.
He introduced his last number with a history lesson: “They may think they can,” he said. “They may think they can, they may wanna. But 20 years later, they still… ‘Can’t Touch This’.”
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By early afternoon, the kids had filed back onto their buses, and the masses had started descending on the Banjo Stage for the late-afternoon and early-evening performances by Sharon Little, Jerry Douglas, and headliners Alison Krauss & Robert Plant. On Saturday and Sunday, there will be five official musical stages, but after the morning session Friday, there was just one. By the time Little’s set began at 2:30, the attendance was well into the thousands; a few hours later, the tens of thousands.
Little’s back-story is summed up succintly on her website: “At the start of 2008, Sharon Little was working as a waitress. Less than five months later, she is appearing in concert halls throughout the country as the opening act on the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett Raising Sand tour.”
Little has a rich and at times powerful voice built noticeably on jazz, gospel, and rhythm & blues. She took the stage with a second acoustic guitarist (in addition to herself), a bassist, and a drummer. The guitarist, Scot Sax, is her close musical partner; they write all of their songs together, and evidently it was their meeting that sparked this period of feverish success. But the entire band was solid, and the sound for this first mainstage set of the weekend was loud and clear.
Next up, Jerry Douglas. No surprises here. Another scorching set from the incomparable master of the dobro. His band is outstanding and certainly up to the challenge of playing at Douglas’ characteristically breakneck speeds. Luke Bulla (fiddle) and Guthrie Trapp (guitar) both have the credentials and the chops. Here’s what Douglas had to say about his ryhthm section: “Chad Melton [drums] and Todd Parks [upright bass] both grew up drinking from the same water supply in Cleveland, Tennessee. You can’t go wrong with a rhythm section that grew up drinking from the same water supply.”
And indeed, no one went wrong here today. Douglas and his band turned in a ten-song, mostly instrumental set. After two blistering numbers, they changed course for a very beautiful, if melancholy, fiddle tune in waltz time. Then, after a song written for the troops, Douglas announced it was “bluegrass time,” and Bulla took lead vocals on Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling”. Although, with drums in the mix and vocal harmonies from Douglas that didn’t exactly remind me of Monroe’s famous tenor, it felt more like the general vicinity of bluegrass time. Maybe it was “Hardly” time.
Douglas’ music, after all, seems at times to have as much in common with jazz as it does with bluegrass. That was especially evident on the seventh song of the set, a Weather Report tune by Wayne Shorter called “A Remark You Made”. “Bill Monroe and Weather Report were great friends,” Douglas pointed out. “They played a lot of the same notes.”
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By 5:30, Speedway Meadow looked like it was receiving refugees across a border. The full length of the meadow was filled, and now there were people proliferating among the cypress and eucalyptus trees lining the hills on either side. The attraction? Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose 2007 album Raising Sand proved to be another T Bone Burnett goldmine. Burnett himself performs in the backing band, along with the brilliant Stuart Duncan on banjo and fiddle, Jay Bellerose on drums, Dennis Crouch on upright bass, and, in Plant’s words, “the irrepressible Buddy Miller on everything.”
The group turned in a sixteen-song set with one encore (“I’m A One Woman Man”, by Johnny Horton). “Black Dog”, “The Battle Of Evermore”, “Black Country Woman,” and Plant’s solo hit “In The Mood” appealed to the Zeppelin fans in the audience and helped to supplement songs from Raising Sand.
Krauss delivered her usual pristine and sometimes haunting vocals. Her a cappella singing on the O Brother number “Down To The River to Pray”, backed by three-part harmony from Plant, Miller, and Duncan, underlined why she’s been at the forefront of bluegrass music for two decades now. As her voice carried out over the thousands – many of whom were drawn in by Plant’s rock-star luster – it became clearer how the union of these two somewhat incongruous performers in many ways epitomizes the whole Hardly Strictly phenomenon.
For an additional Friday HSB report by longtime ND contributor Paul Bonanos, go here.