Author: Poling, Chuck

A Tale of Two Festivals

The twang of the last chord I heard at Bluegrassin’ in the Foothills at Plymouth is still ringing in my ears as I write this month’s column. At the same time, I’m making plans to host a houseful of guests for this coming weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. Both are wonderful musical experiences, but they couldn’t be more different if you staged them on separate planets.

Plymouth is a perfect example of small, traditional festival. Believe it or not, this was my first time attending this festival. I’d been hearing about it for years and had been tempted to go, but by mid-September, I usually had enough of camping. For many years I went to Strawberry Music Festival, and when I returned I packed the camping gear away and bid it adieu until next spring.

But this year I skipped Strawberry and opted for Plymouth. I was looking forward to hearing the Larry Gillis Band and seeing CBA sweetheart Ella Naiman on stage, along with Alex Leach, my favorite bluegrass DJ. The band delivered a straight-ahead, Katy-bar-the-door set. The lineup was outstanding for a festival of this size. Audie Blaylock and Redline are top-notch, and Larry Stephenson brings authentic bluegrass cred to the stage.

I cheered my friends in Belle Monroe and Her Brewglass Boys and went ga-ga over Windy Hill, my latest bluegrass obsession. It was a special treat to see the Central Valley Boys, who were recruited – without their red suits – to fill in for an absent band.

Most of the bands stuck pretty close to the old-school script. I heard a lot of Bill and Ralph and Jimmy and Lester and Earl as well as a lot of original songs inspired by the first generation masters. And I liked it! Hearing a band like Windy Hill – young, enthusiastic pickers with a reverence for traditional bluegrass – tear through a breakdown and harmonize their way through a tragic ballad reminds me of why I fell in love with bluegrass in the first place.

The fairgrounds were lovely, the scale was easily manageable, and I saw many familiar faces. It was easy to get to bathrooms and concessions, and there weren’t any traffic delays arriving or departing the fairgrounds. All and all, it was a marvelous little festival and a great bluegrass experience.

Meanwhile, back in the city, the masses will soon gather in Golden Gate Park for the annual free festival underwritten by San Francisco’s patron saint of bluegrass, Warren Hellman. As most of you know by now, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is just that – a festival that was originally inspired by bluegrass artists and features a number of bluegrass performers, but has become more of a roots and rock event over the years. This year’s lineup includes Ricky Skaggs, the Seldom Scene, the Del McCoury Band (with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band), Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Dry Branch Fire Squad, and Laurie Lewis. Past year’ stages have been graced by David Grisman, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Hot Rize, Curly Seckler, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Doc Watson, and the late Hazel Dickens.

So there’s plenty of bluegrass there, but that covers only about ten percent of this huge festival. Not too many festivals with the word “bluegrass” in their name would include Dr. John, Zakir Hussain, Merle Haggard, and Robert Plant. But that’s HSB for you. There’s plenty enough of the real deal, but then there’s just about everything else.

Attendance over the three-day weekend has exceeded 700,000. It was down to “only” 500,000 last year because it was a bit overcast and windy. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has six stages and covers several large meadows in the park. Whatever is going on, you can see someone you really enjoy while simultaneously regretting that you’re missing another favorite act that’s on a distant stage. Choices must be made because it takes so long to wade through the crowd to the move to another stage.

Which leads us to the negatives – the crowds, the overflowing porta-potties, and the sheer scale of it all. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but then neither is Plymouth. The heat at Plymouth was a bit much for this San Francisco boy, and what shade there was had been claimed by the time we rolled into camp Friday afternoon. It wasn’t encouraging to hear so many people say, “Hey the weather is cooler than usual.” The drive to Plymouth took us about two-and-a-half hours, while Hardly Strictly is a ten-minute bus ride away from our home.

But I love both festivals and am willing to put up with these drawbacks because I enjoy the events for what they are. It amuses me when I hear people complain about HSB as if they had spent the $200+ that a commercial festival would charge. I’m sure Warren stands by his product and will provide a full refund. Just send back any unused portion of the festival with a stamped self-addressed envelope.

Plymouth was a schlep that required all the packing, unpacking, and setting up that festers are all to familiar with, but I got to jam and hang out with a lot of dear friends and get a near overdose of tradgrass.

It can be a tough sell to convince someone to come to San Francisco with a 24-foot motor home to find a festival with no camping and no jamming. On the other hand, I know a lot of city folk who haven’t been camping since they were eight years old and can’t imagine how primitive the accommodations must be (they’d think different if they’d ever seen Lou Felthouse’s camp-kitchen at the Father’s Day Fest).

There are a lot of different types of bluegrass fans and festivals out there. We’re lucky that here in Northern California we have something that satisfies everybody’s appetites. Big or small, urban or rural, diverse or traditional, we’ve got it all.

Posted:  9/26/2011

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