Thank God, or whomever you wish to thank, for Philanthropy.
More specifically, thank rich guys like Warren Hellman, who every year bankrolls Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free festival in Golden Gate park and a magnet for world-class roots and rootsy artistes. For these past eight years, the festival has gone on, rain or shine, during the first weekend of October, routinely attracting folks like Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello and vintage acts like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.
This year, Elvis Costello played on the Sunday, and I’ll talk about that later in this post. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss headlined Friday night, with T-Bone Burnett joining them but I wasn’t there because I was lucky enough to be attending another philanthropic event over at the Great American Music Hall.
Ry, Nick and Jim – Guitar, Bass and Drums.
The show was put together by legendary Marin keyboard player Austin de Lone (a former member of Elvis Costello’s Confederates) and his wife Lesley, as a benefit to help run a Housing Project for Prader-Willi syndrome sufferers like their son Richard. Read about Prader-Willi here. Last year, de Lone invited Elvis Costello who came and reunited with Clover, the band who backed him on My Aim Is True, for a track-by-track recreation of that landmark debut album. It was an amazing event that I will never forget.
It takes a village to raise a child with special needs, and this year, it took a Little Village, as in Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner (without John Hiatt) appearing under the moniker: Guitar Bass and Drums.
To open the show, Juliette Commagere (who is, as I later read in Joel Selvin’s column, Cooder’s daughter-in-law) brought up a huge group of players, which included drummer Joachim Cooder, a guitarist, a bass player, two synthesizer players, and a four piece horn and string section. Next, in stark contrast, Elvis Costello, popped onstage with “Audie” de Lone on accordion to do a short set in which including his current live staple, a T-Bone Burnett co-write called “Sulphur To Sugar Cane” and what he announced was the inaugural performance of a song called “Doctor Watson, I Presume.”
It was simply astoundingly brilliant and its miraculous how Elvis just gets better and better with age.
Then came the headliners. Nick Lowe on bass (mainly) Jim Keltner on drums (naturally) and Ry Cooder on electric guitar (impressively). These guys, of course, have played a lot together – notably with John Hiatt on Bring the Family and the aforementioned Little Village, and Keltner and Cooder backed Nick on his landmark Party of One album (still one of my all time faves). In fact, Nick opened up with one from that album, “Gai Gin Man.” Nick and Ry traded lead vocals, but the lion’s share went to Nick, who sometimes put down the bass to play acoustic guitar. I was thrilled that he did a laid back version of “What So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love And Understanding” and a jaw dropping rendition of his song “The Beast In Me” which was recorded by Johnny Cash. Elvis came up for a duet with Nick and I didn’t recognize the name of it. These guys know so many songs; some of them deliberately obscure picks.
I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this before, but Ry Cooder is one of the best slide guitarists in the world. And since he’s literally been around that world, I think
it must be common knowledge. Such a warm tone, just the right amount of grit to it, playing such fluid and organic lines. The word “tasty” doesn’t do it justice. And Jim Keltner, a drummer’s drummer, was so open and groovy that, and this is a compliment, you could sometimes forget he was there. His grooves were so economical and “just right” and he didn’t grandstand or try to steal the spotlight from Nick or Ry. It’s an inspiring thing to see the best of the best, loose and under rehearsed having a good time on stage.
Thanks to Colin Nairne, who working with Elvis and Ry, I
was sitting in a VIP balcony with Colin’s wife, the excellent singer Wendy Bird. Wendy pointed out Steve Earle standing over to the side of the stage. I was sure he was going to come up and join them, but he never did.
I ended up going backstage after the show, thanks again Colin, and found myself in a conversation with Elvis, Nick and Steve Earle, about Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and other names I probably shouldn’t mention. When I say “in a conversation”, I should point out that I was largely laying out – only chiming in to either ask for elaboration (like Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With Andre) or to meekly add my two cents about Smile or Pet Sounds.
At the risk of exposing my inner nerd even more than usual, I had to laugh to myself at being allowed into the proximic bubble of three great songwriters, all of whom I’ve admired. It was like superimposing my head on Mt. Rushmore. I was happy to be involved but boy did I feel like the odd man out.
Then on Sunday, we went down to see Elvis play his Hardly Strictly set.
It took us a while to get into the city (traffic was bad on the Bay Bridge) so by the time we got near the Star Stage, EC was already into his set but a convivial festival vibe was evident. The festival later announced that 40,000 people had attended the whole weekend, but it felt like the whole lot was there for Elvis’s set.
He leaned toward rootsier material like the aforementioned “Sulphur To Sugar Cane” (although I expected Burnett to join him, he never did) and George Jones’ “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” with guest Jim Lauderdale before inviting special guest Emmylou Harris to do a duet on “Love Hurts”. Elvis was clearly having fun, dedicating “My Three Sons” to his sons Frank and Dexter, who were at the side of the stage, also pulling off a rollicking take on Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” and even “Uncomplicated” from Blood and Chocolate.
Overall, a great weekend, and all of it came about because of philanthropy.