Saturday, October 1, 2016

Conor's New Album and Hardly Strictly with Conor Oberst, Jim James, Mavis Staples, Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin...

                         "Tried to lose myself...
                           in the primitive...
                           in Yosemite...
                           like John Muir did..."
                                                                                                          Conor, Barbary Coast (Later)

Conor Oberst has a new album out and from initial listens, it sounds like a real triumph!

Was lucky enough to catch Conor yesterday at a free festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park - the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, now in its 16th year.

For the past 5 years, Friday night, the opening of the festival, has been curated by Conor as "Conor Brings Friends For Friday".

Hardly Strictly started out as a humble festival of bluegrass enthusiasts but in recent years has blossomed into one of the premier festivals in the world, especially among the festivals that don't cost $300 - $400 or more to get in.

I'm not a big fan of capitalism, but if all capitalists were like the late Warren Hellman, founder of the festival, I'd be a lot more forgiving. Warren made tons of money but was willing to spend millions of it on a festival for the people, even ensuring the festival would continue after his death by putting funds aside for such. He was a banjo player you see, and he befriended people like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris who have performed at each of the 16 incarnations of the fest. Exclusive bluegrassness gave way to a festival that embraces Americana in general - folk, country... although (correct me if I'd wrong here) it seems they ceded the territory of the blues to other more specialized festivals.

I guess about 5 years ago or so, I noticed the festival had morphed into "a thing", and I started chatting with various people who had made their vacation plans around the festival and flown in from far-flung locals as opposed to the Northern California-dominated crowds of the early years.

I only went briefly the past two years, but went early yesterday knowing it would be a mob scene. I parked miles away from the site, as it would be pointless to try to park closer. Hiked in, past the Polo Fields, the site of The Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, feat. Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Janis, The Dead, Quicksilver, and The Jefferson Airplane (two of whom are playing today at Hardly Strictly - guitarist Jorma and bassist Jack - as Hot Tuna). The poster for the event simply said "all" the SF rock bands were going to be there, including Santana and The Steve Miller Band...

In the distance I could hear Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle harmonizing. I love their new album of duets, Colvin & Earle, although I think a few people will agree with me that "Colvin & Earle" sounds like a law firm. Why not the warmer "Shawn & Steve"? Or simply "Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle"? A minor quibble. The album is great, check it out if you haven't yet.

Steve Earle on stage yesterday

There was quite a crowd there already (Shawn & Steve went on just after 2:30 pm), but the sound was good and (let's face it) there's not a bad seat in the house - San Francisco's beautiful Golden Gate Park. We'd occasionally get a blast of Anna McClennan from the Rooster Stage (one of Conor's "friends" for Friday). Shawn & Steve's music is mainly on the quiet side, so it was somewhat disturbing that this hermosa music was compromised to some extent by intrusions from another stage. 

I was reminded of Coachella 2009. The crowd was enraptured as Leonard Cohen finished his set. People had been on the verge of tears, singing along with Hallelujah, when suddenly a blast of rock from the main stage wafted over the stiff desert air. It was Morrissey, of The Smiths. At the time, I thought, wasn't there ONE PERSON who could have said to Morrissey "Leonard Cohen is finishing up next door... wanna delay this by 15 minutes while his does his last song or so...?" I wondered if there wasn't one person yesterday willing to say "this won't go with that". It was wise to have Shawn & Steve go on early. That seems to be a scenario that would work - quiet music early, louder music later... 

Anyway, Shawn & Steve sounded great live, as on the album. They do a nice cover of Ruby Tuesday by The Stones, as well as some new songs, some other covers, and older songs by either Shawn or Steve. I hope this album finds its audience.

The song Tell Moses fit in well with the politics I was feeling.

Drama down in Egypt, pharaoh's fit to fight
Talkin' bout the trouble with the Israelites
How I'm supposed to build this monument of mine
If I can't keep the monoliths moving down the line

Tell Moses, tell him go
Say the children of Israel are suffering so
tell Moses, tell him true
You gotta lead them where the pharaoh won't be following you

Water is wide, milk and honey on the other side
Keep on traveling on

Selma, Alabama, 1965
Gotta stick together if you're gonna to stay alive
Riot gear and tear gas, sheriff's on the edge
Waiting with an army over yonder 'cross the bridge
Tell Martin. Tell him go
Say the governor's in Montgomery and you gotta let him know

Tell Martin. Tell him now
He's been up on the mountain and he's got to show us how

Water is wide, milk and honey on the other side 

Ferguson, Missouri, people in the streets
Hands above their head standing up to the police
Waiting for a hero to step into the breach
'Ain't nobody coming so it's up to you and me

Tell Mary, tell John
Say the hourglass is empty and the judgment day has come
Tell preacher, farmer Brown
Say Joshua's blown his trumpet and the walls are comin' down
Tell sister, brother too
Tell them where they're gonna meet us and what we're gonna do
Tell Steven, tell Shawn
There's a message in the music, everybody sing along

Water is wide, milk and honey on the other side
Keep on traveling along...

Steve introduced the song mentioning Roger Waters, who has been severely criticized for his pro-Palestinian politics (unfairly, in my opinion). Besides the Middle East, in this song we have Ferguson, Missouri (where the protests over Michael Brown's death at the hands of police helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement), Martin Luther King, and the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, all wrapped in gospel imagery and with a chorus based on an old classic. I thought of the Human Be-In and smiled. First we sing, then we march, then we win.

Moved over to the Banjo and Rooster stages. Caught a bit of Rebirth Brass Band, then Jim James of My Morning Jacket doing his solo stuff (lots from the first solo album). He also came out, with M. Ward, during Conor's set for a cool Monsters of Folk reunion with Whole Lotta Losin'...

Conor did a nice mix of songs from the new album, as well as songs he recorded previously as Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst, or with the Mystic Valley Band. Sausalito named for the town over the bridge, seemed particularly appropriate. Those "Americana" albums Conor did with Mystic Valley Band are hard to top for me personally.

The new album is very stripped down and introspective. The album cover shows Conor tickling the ivories on a piano, not guitar, his primary instrument. Reportedly, the songs came tumbling out as Conor was recuperating from exhaustion, having been juggling solo gigs and appearances with his old punk band Desaparecidos.

The new music is indeed a searching of the soul, and full of name-checking including Sylvia Plath and Patti Smith. As Conor played at Hardly Strictly yesterday, I recalled I had once seen him open up for Patti Smith at New York's St. John The Divine Cathedral. There was a time I was living in New York and so was Conor and I saw him perform several times during that period.

I also saw him open for John Fogerty, REM, and Bruce Springsteen during the pro-Kerry, anti-Bush Vote For Change concerts for the 2004 elections.

He certainly is one of the most talented singer-songwriters we have, firmly in the Guthrie/Dylan vein, at home with the personal as well as the political as well as the personally political.

Finally, over the hill from Conor, we could hear Mavis Staples and went over for a few songs. She ended with the Staples Singers classic I'll Take You There...

I had just seen Mavis this past June at Berkeley's Greek Theater, opening up for her former beau Bob Dylan. Although I was a little sad that they didn't sing anything together, she was a wonder to behold on her own (well, with her excellent band).

Her family was extremely close with Martin Luther King, Jr., and for her to "testify" in concert as a participant and witness to history in a marvel all Americans should know, deep in their hearts.

"I was there!!!", she proudly declares, speaking of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

The Civil Rights Movement was a vital part of making America "a more perfect union".

The work continues with Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and other social movements.

The work continues with artists like Mavis, Conor, and Steve Earle, who wear their politics and their hearts on their sleeves.

Afterwards we walked again past the silent Polo Fields.

Isn't it time for another Human Be-In? A period where love, peace, charity, and compassion take the place of hate, war, greed, and bigotry? A focus on communalism, community, and sharing instead of isolation, fleeting trends, and materialism?

It almost feels that the pendulum is about the swing the other way, after the counter-revolution of the Yuppies has dominated the conversation since 1980. Yuppie focus on selfishness, consumerism, and working in some cubicle is kind of boring. Aren't people ready to reject this en masse?

I'm ready. The planet is ready.

Are you ready?

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