Bluegrass Styles Converge in SF
February 20, 2007 10:19 PM
A six-piece bluegrass band fiddles as fast and loud as they can on a tiny cramped stage. There are about 15 people on the dance floor, sweating in flannel shirts, blue jeans, cowboy hats and yellow dresses. Another shot of whisky goes down and there are 16 on the floor. The most recent addition slaps his knee, spinning circles, laughing and cattle calls ring out. The twin fiddles match each other, finding a way to play even faster, the banjo is hauling ass, and the tall stand-up bass man plucks like he is deranged. This is a ho down, a hootenany, a barn burner, a hee haw all at once, and it is on Market Street in San Francisco.
Only something here is different. What is that tapping noise in the background? A drummer? At a bluegrass show?
In the Wild West, far away from the roots of country and bluegrass music, things are a-changin’.
Although bluegrass music originated in Kentucky with a band called the “Blue Grass Boys,” it is the West Coast that is emerging as the fastest growing scene. Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco each host a slew of fresh young musicians, who may or may not choose to follow the rules of traditional bluegrass. These bands are showcased at each of San Francisco’s two annual bluegrass festivals.
On February 10th, Portland band Hillstomp played the Alt-Bluegrass Show with three other bands at Café Du Nord during the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old Time Festival. The event, in its eighth year, featured over 60 bands over 10 consecutive nights at different venues across the city. The “alternative” refers to bands that do not properly fit the mold, but are close enough to be enjoyed by the bluegrass crowd.
Hillstomp member Henry Kammerer simply describes their music as North Mississippi-style punk-blues with an Appalachian sound and bluegrass influence. Hillstomp is highly irregular by bluegrass standards. There are only two members, and one of them uses a bucket for a drum set.
“It is easier to call it Americana, but not the cowboys and belt buckles. I call it Americana because America gave us country and blues, which is where we draw most of our inspiration from,” says Kammerer, who plays banjo and guitar.
Bluegrass snobs do not tolerate drums, or buckets. They prefer the four standard acoustics instruments: a guitar, stand up bass, fiddle, and banjo. Other modern variations from the old incorporate electric guitars, pianos, and mandolins.
Kammerer, 31, and his partner John Johnson formed Hillstomp about four years ago, and have toured the United States and Europe. Hillstomp has played six or seven times in San Francisco, and at the SF Bluegrass and Old Time festival twice.
The Alternative show was a great success, according to Kammerer, who was pleased by a full house and a fun crowd.
“There are other people doing stuff similar to what we’re doing. It's one of the big questions in the world of bluegrass. For it to stay vital and real, its cousins have to go in different directions. We’re a cousin to bluegrass.”
Another bluegrass cousin, from the other side of the family, is local musician, Toshio Hirano.
Hirano is a 56-year-old Japanese man who has been yodeling railroad music for over 40 years. Hirano grew up in Tokyo, where he and his friends played in a bluegrass band, when he came across an album by one of America’s original country stars.
“One day I ran into the sound of Jimmie Rodgers and it blew me away,” says Hirano.
“Considering the Bay Area is not very country, I think the bluegrass scene is pretty good,” says Hirano. “There is a community that is not very obvious to many people — a very strong, tight community.”
Hirano says that at his regular venues, Amnesia and Rite Spot in the Mission District, are often crowded with socialites rather than hardcore bluegrass fans, and that his music is not technically bluegrass anyhow.
“Some people find it very fresh,” says Hirano. “They ask me when I wrote it. I’ve been playing these places. They keep me playing very, very consistently. I am blessed to have that place going. It is more than I could hope for.”
San Francisco’s Burning Embers is another bluegrass fringe band that just played in the SF Bluegrass and Old Time Festival. Two fiddles, a guitar, a stand-up bass, a banjo, and a drum set crowded the stage at Café Du Nord.
“We had a great show,” says Eric Embry, banjo player and singer of The Burning Embers, who noted that shows were well attended across the city. “It’s as big here as it is in Tennessee,” says Embry. “It’s probably the biggest outside of Austin.”
Embry, 33, would know. He is from Gatlinburg, Tennessee and has played the banjo for about 10 years. He moved to San Francisco three years ago to find more work as a freelance photographer, but Embry had no problems finding people to play with.
“When I moved here, I was pleasantly surprised at how the scene actually was. It took no time at all. I found a jam or two online. It just took off from there; I was in a band within a month,” Embry recounts.
The Burning Embers’ favorite venue is the Riptide in the Sunset, where they have developed a local following.
“It is a real hoot,” says fan Paul McGann. “The music is good, the people are friendly and the beer is ice cold.”
McGann is dressed in a dark blue flannel long sleeve shirt, and black jeans. A sales rep for a local SF hard goods company, McGann has lived in the city for about five years.
“I didn’t know this whole scene even existed, until I took a date to the park. I think it was two or three years ago. We walked right up to Willie Nelson. It was great,” said McGann.
Another San Francisco event, which McGann attended, is the massive Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which takes place in Golden Gate Park and lasts three days during the fall, boasting over 70 acts and drawing nearly 400,000 people. For the sixth straight year, the popular event has drawn famous performers like Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, talented veterans like the South Austin Jug Band, and young guns like The Devil Makes Three. Multiple stages and huge lawns lure music lovers, Frisbee games, grass smokers, hula hoopers and dogs without leashes alike. The roads that run through Golden Gate Park are closed to cars, and cluttered with enthusiastic fans, bicycle riders and barbeque carts.
The best part of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and perhaps the furthest deviation from traditional live-music venues is… it is absolutely FREE.
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