Oh, how I love bluegrass.
Oh, how I love all of the things that people stereotypically associate with bluegrass: twanging banjos, quick fiddles and old men with majestic beards, do-si-do-ing round and round …
Oh, how I love all of the things that the general public does not associate with bluegrass but should, like camping, jam circles, pure joy and Yosemite.
This past Labor Day weekend marked my first ever foray into the well loved, 31-year-old (and going strong) bluegrass staple that is the Strawberry Music Festival. Held high up in the mountains at beautiful Camp Mather, up against the edge of Yosemite National Park, the festival draws music lovers of all ages and is a yearly (or twice-yearly, if you go to the spring Strawberry as well) tradition for hundreds of families.
To be honest, I had no idea who most of the performers slated to play during the weekend were when I bought my tickets, but like many festivals, Strawberry is more about an overall experience than seeing a particular group of bands. Having grown up going to a similar festival in Colorado, and eventually Hardly Strictly Bluegrass up in San Francisco, I knew this was an experience I wanted to be a part of.
And an experience it was … Throughout the weekend I was confronted with the oldest men in the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen, as well as outfits made of glitter, hats that looked like chickens, babies dressed up as strawberries, older people dancing like crazy … Strawberry is basically where Coachella comes to retire.
Yet, as my friend Sio said, going to Strawberry feels like being transported 45 years in the past. It’s a strange pocket of the world where you wake up to music and go to bed with it, with no access to the Internet or Instagram to keep you from fully appreciating everything around you and connecting with the many friendly people you meet at the many pun-ny campsites (my favorites: “Camp Find Your Kids?,” “Camp Havmahbootay” and our creations, “Camp Touch This,” “Camp Cry Over Spilt Milk” and “Do or Do Not, There is No Camp”).
One of my favorite acts of the weekend was actually in honor of the late “This Land Is Your Land” singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. “Walking Woody’s Road” featured performances of Guthrie’s timeless music by several great musicians, including his granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, who is a talented performer in her own right.
During the tribute, the artists also read quotes by Guthrie, which highlighted his “everyman” philosophy. I never realized how much of a bad-ass Guthrie was (his guitar used to bear a sticker that said “This Machine Kills Fascists”), or how relevant his thoughts on big business and politics still are today. One need only listen to the lyrics of “This Land” to see that we have an awful lot to learn from Guthrie. When the group finished their set with the famous song, the whole crowd stood up to start singing together. It was a powerful moment. Between that and them playing “California Stars” (made popular by the cover by Wilco and Billy Bragg), I may or may not have shed several tears…and not for the usual reasons I cry while camping, like bee stings and no access to hot showers.
The artists were almost all phenomenal. I was really impressed with the headliners, who were clearly experienced entertainers and put together great shows, even for those of us who were not familiar with their music.
Saturday’s headliner, John Hiatt and his excellent band, the Combo, performed some great old country blues and rock ballads that got the crowd dancing – and laughing. His humor throughout the set was one of my favorite parts of the performance.
Another part-time comedienne, full time professional musician was Friday night’s headliner, k.d. lang who performed with her incredible band, The Siss Boom Bang. Lang may fall into the loathsome category of “adult contemporary” music, and I don’t know that I’d necessarily go out of my way to listen to one of her albums, but hers was one of the most impressive performances of the weekend.
In between impeccably arranged tunes, the openly gay Grammy Award-winner made jokes about being sponsored by Chick-Fil-A and stealing people’s wives. But the highlights of her performance were the two covers she did midway through the set. Lang’s rendition of “Heaven” by the Talking Heads followed by “Hallelujah” (the Leonard Cohen tune made famous by the late Jeff Buckley) proved that with a voice like that, you can do anything, including making Demi Anter cry.
The only vaguely disappointing headliner was the family act put together by the bluegrass legends, brother and sister Tim and Mollie O’Brien. O’Brien Party of 7 featured Mollie’s husband and daughters and Tim’s sons, who collaborated to make an album of Roger Miller covers. Unfortunately, the overall performance was not on par with the rest of the festival, though Tim and Mollie performing their own songs together was quite enjoyable (Tim is a mandolin master and Mollie has a superbly powerful voice). At least it was clear that they were there to have fun as a family, which is very much in step with “the Strawberry way.”
Overall, the real standouts were some of the less traditional bands that graced the Strawberry stages.
Friday morning’s performers Hoots & Hellmouth presented listeners with energetic roots and soul music with a bit of a twist.
The Pimps of Joytime took the stage under Saturday’s hot, afternoon sun and played away with equally hot, funky, Latin-based sounds. People really seemed to warm up to them as they proceeded through their set. They were probably the weekend’s most unusual performers.
Jelly Bread is the best funk band you’ve never heard of (assuming you’re also just a casual funk connoisseur like me). They absolutely brought it during their Main Stage set Friday afternoon. The sun may have been cooking over Music Meadow, but many people got on their feet and enjoyed their eclectic and powerful range of songs. The band also absolutely killed it at the Amphitheater (an intimate stage in the middle of one of the campsites) the following morning. They got everyone in the crowd up and dancing for most of the set, to the point that we were too exhausted to groove anymore during their last song, an awesomely bumping ditty about burying someone who wronged you in the backyard. Not bad for a show at ten in the morning.
But the all-time best of Strawberry 2012? Birds of Chicago, a recently formed American roots band headed by JT Nero (of JT and the Clouds) and Allison Russell (of Po’ Girl). The group was the epitome of what makes Strawberry incredible.
For one, my camp-mates and I became aware of them when their drummer, Mike Bruno, came by to see if he could borrow our friend Ben’s cajón for a set at the Amphitheater. Bruno ended up hanging out with us for a while and even joining us on a hike, which speaks to the accessibility and community feel of bluegrass fests in general.
What’s funny is that Bruno ended up almost not needing the cajón after all; there was a full drum set at the Amphitheater for him to use, but a few minutes before the show, power went out all over the campsite and they had to do the set unplugged.
I can only describe this as an act of fate. The show that Birds of Chicago put on there that afternoon was something close to a religious experience. With the deep green branches of the trees gently swaying around the small stage and the two hundred or so people gathered there, Yosemite provided the perfect backdrop for the intimate show.
Birds of Chicago played their hearts out on guitar, banjo, ukulele, stand-up bass, cajón and accordion. Even the aesthetics of these traditional instruments is something unmatched in contemporary music. Russell’s sweet, jazzy whispers and Nero’s country-folk vocals wove together beautifully. Though each of their songs were enjoyable, the apex was their track “Mountains/Forests,” which is actually the title track of the first album the duo sang all the way through on together.
The witty song begins with Nero singing, “I have been laid down in the weeds and the tendrils / and I have been warned by surgeon generals / And I have seen the moonlight on a stack of quarters / and I have seen the milk in the hand of the farmer’s daughter” and goes on to basically say, appreciate all of those beautiful, small things around you: “So baby, you’ll be wrong to think I’m easily amazed / I hold out for surprises / I do not hope to be saved / Play it close, play it close / oh let it in / receive it / Hold on, taste it, release it …”
The weight of those words and the sublime appreciation I felt to just be there, listening, surrounding by people who were all feeling the same joy, hit me at once. And yeah, I cried, for the bees and the cold showers, and out of thankfulness.
This is bluegrass.