East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Saturday, October 01, 2005

Countrier than thou: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Day 1

Painful decision of this festival was choosing between Buddy Miller and Rodney Crowell, playig simultaneously (Doc Watson, in the long run a greater artist than either, didn't get a look in). I chose Miller, hoping that he'd do his Dylan cover. A stunning "With God on Our Side" dominates Universal United House of Prayer: it's not the very best track, and doesn't compare to the Neville Brothers' still holier version, but it makes most of the rest of the album blur together in your memory. He didn't pull it out, but we did get a fired-up "Worry Too Much" and a couple of Emmylou Harris cameos (a little dirgey, would've preferred Julie). Miller finished early, and as I jogged past Crowell's stage, he was leading a singalong of "Like a Rolling Stone". Seemed like fun, although I don't think anyone remembers in what order the verses proceed. (Note: Buddy's backing singers were not quite the only other nonwhite faces I saw today.)

Jimmie Dale Gilmore's voice seems to divide people, but if you love it, you really love it. Today he played almost all covers, many from his new record, Come on Back. I'm still not entirely convinced by the covers on One Endless Night, which was Tom Hull's (the critic whom I agree with the second most) number one record of 2000 - I thought that a lot of the material didn't suit him. If today's show is any indication, Come on Back is probably stronger. The secret: loads of story songs. Now that Johnny Cash is gone, Gilmore might be country's greatest living storyteller, and it doesn't matter that the stories aren't his. When he tells the tale of the son of a fisherman from Saginaw, Michigan (just a terrific Lefty song that somehow I missed until now), he can't pull off the contempt and pity for the haughty father that Lefty produces: he's not playing the character. It's more like a reading of an old primary source, but geez, what a narrator Gilmore makes. His pitch wavers but his phrase shaping is exceptional: the individual notes aren't great but they're all perfectly placed in relation to each other (c.f. Dylan, but Gilmore's tone is somewhat more pleasant).

Steve Earle comes every year to play a set with his Bluegrass Dukes, which isn't ideal - the Del McCoury collab notwithstanding, he's better when he rocks out. But it was exhilarating to hear his two great recent political songs, the anti-war "Rich Man's War" and the pro-peace "Jerusalem" (we also got the controversial, failed "John Walker's Blues"), in this setting, I guess for the same reason neocons would get a kick out of listening to pro-Bush rap (only they wouldn't, even if it existed). Now if only he'd found a way to work in "Fuck the FCC".

Also: Del McCoury's studied intimacy is pretty freakin' amazing at his age, though I don't agree that old-timey implies good-timey. I wish I caught more of the Knitters, it's what all old great punks should be doing in their middle age. Gillian Welch isn't someone I've ever got, and that didn't change today, but the crowd adored her.

Finally: Koo's Tokyo Crunch (yellowtail and eel sushi with crunchy bits of tempura batter sprinkled on top) is pretty awesome.


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