San Jose Mercury News, October 4, 2008

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Plant / Krauss at Hardly Strictly
(and Cooder & friends afterward)


Shay Quillen

The seventh edition of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival kicked off Friday in Golden Gate Park with an afternoon of entertainment topped by a performance by the remarkable band that prompted Robert Plant to tell Led Zeppelin and zillions of dollars to take a hike. The former Led Zep lead singer recently announced that he won't be touring with the band anytime soon — and considering that the guys are in their 60s now, probably ever. But why rehash oldies with Jimmy Page when you can create something new with Buddy Miller every night? So Robert Plant & Alison Krauss will continue with producer-guitarist T Bone Burnett as a touring unit and a recording unit for the forseeable future (Marian Leighton, one of the founders of Rounder Records, confirmed that another RP&AK CD was in the works).

With virtually every important artist in the nebulous genre known as Americana hanging out backstage, this could have been an orgy of guest stars and unexpected collaborations. Emmylou Harris could have chimed in on "Down to the River to Pray." Carlene Carter could have helped on the "Wildwood Flower." Elvis Costello could have sung "The Scarlet Tide" with Alison. Jerry Douglas, the Dobro virtuoso from her Union Station band, certainly could have chipped in. Heck, I bet Steve Earle would have sung "Rock and Roll" with Plant if he'd been asked nicely.

But instead the band chose to perform a shorter version of its regular live set, the one it performed on a cold and foggy night Berkeley's Greek Theatre back in June. It's a mix of songs from the duo's debut album, "Raising Sand," plus reinventions of Zep classics and versions of American folk, country, bluegrass and blues classics. The only thing we hadn't heard before was Krauss singing the old Carter Family number "The Wildwood Flower" and T Bone singing his "Earlier Baghdad" (thankfully, his lead-vocal portion was reduced to one song this time around).

Krauss is one of our greats, but she's not a woman who likes to fly by the seat of her pants. So instead of a unique night that will be remembered for decades (like Costello's Friday-afternoon show in 2007) we just got to hear a first-rate show from an utterly distinctive and insanely talented ensemble. Kudos to Miller and to Stuart Duncan, who shone on banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar to the extent that you'd forget he's the best fiddle player in Nashville — that is until he pulled out his fiddle. Drummer Jay Bellerose completed the ensemble.

Here's the set list: Rich Woman / Leave My Woman Alone / Black Dog / Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us / Through the Morning, Through the Night / Goodbye and So Long to You / Fortune Teller / In the Mood (into Mattie Groves) / Black Country Woman / Earlier Baghdad / Wildwood Flower / Down to the River to Pray / Nothing / The Battle of Evermore / Please Read the Letter / Gone Gone Gone // One-Woman Man

These days, there's so much talent at Hardly Strictly that it spills over into the clubs at night. Some music fans headed to Cafe du Nord and the Swedish-American Hall, where the Waco Brothers, Bonnie Prince Billy and Jon Langford were holding court. I opted for the Great American Music Hall, for the second night of Guitar-Bass-Drums: Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. As on Thursday, Costello made an unannounced appearance, singing a few as-yet-unreleased acoustic numbers with host Austin de Lone (and de Lone's teenage daughter, Caroline).

After seeing Lowe doing the solo acoustic thing for the past decade or so, it was great to see him playing bass in a rock band. With only one show under their belts in the past 15 years, though, it was more than a bit rough. "There will be train wrecks and car crashes," Lowe explained charmingly. "If you're here to hear slick, it's not in the house." Lowe took lead vocals on about two-thirds of the songs — a mix of his originals and some wildly obscure covers (thanks to Paul Cebar for identifying "Kidnapper" as an old 45 by Jewel & the Rubies). Cooder sang the rest, with a couple of selections from "Paradise and Lunch," a John Lee Hooker tune, and a version of the old "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" updated with verses about Sarah Palin and the $700 billion buyout.

Costello returned at the very end to sing a duet of the Louvin Brothers' "My Baby's Gone" with Lowe, but despite the enthusiastic efforts of the crowd, one more encore was not forthcoming. Seventy minutes was all we got. Bummer.

Anyway, I kept a set list, but even though I was standing next to Nick Lowe's manager, I managed to miss a couple of titles. Damn! (Jake, can you help?):

Elvis Costello (with Austin and Caroline de Lone):
Life's Companion / Dr. Watson, I Presume (?? new one, co-written with T Bone Burnett) / From Sulfur to Sugar Cane

Guitar-Bass-Drums:
A Fool Who Knows / Gai-Gin Man / Fool for a Cigarette / Feelin' Good / ??? Nick song / Kidnapper / Half a Boy and Half a Man / This Is Hip / The Man in Love / Losin' Boy / How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live / Without Love / ??? Nick song // Peace, Love and Understanding / Tattler // Baby's Gone (with E.C.)

All right. Better drive back down now. Already missed Nick's ex, Carlene Carter. I'll check back in tonight or early tomorrow. Would love to hear other folks' stories from the fest — there's way too much good stuff for any one person to catch it all. Let's hope it doesn't rain too much.

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San Jose Mercury News, October 4, 2008


Shay Quillen reviews Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner, with guest Elvis Costello, Friday, October 3, 2008, Richard de Lone Special Housing Project benefit, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco.


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