A Hardly Strictly Homecoming
By Lou Fancher
In his second year as talent buyer for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, the veteran concert and festival booker Chris Porter came to realize that his position comes with a gigantic, fantastically good problem.
"A lot of artists want to play at the festival," Porter said in an interview. After joining the festival staff late in the game last year — in April as opposed to this year booking artists starting in January — the job he equates with juggling while assembling a jigsaw puzzle remained a logistical challenge.
Even so, Porter maneuvered into place 82 acts that include legacy artists who perform annually at the free festival along with a strong contingent of new artists. Strategically scheduled on six stages during the festival's three days, Porter says, "We try not to have fan's favorite bands running at the same time, but so much about a festival is discovery. You go to see your favorite, but I want to encourage people to go where the wind takes them and maybe find new favorites."
That won't be hard, with not-to-miss acts including Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters, Tanya Tucker, the Flatlanders, Judy Collins, Steve Earle & the Dukes, Chris Thile with Grace Potter and J.S. Ondara, and perennial festival closer Emmylou Harris — and "newer" artists offering discovery, among them, Oakland's Fantastic Negrito, Swedish singer Daniel Norgren, Ukrainian folk group Dakhabrakha, country-soul singer Yola, Tank & the Bangas, and dozens more.
"We want bluegrass of course, but there's plenty of "hardly" in there as well," Porter said. "I give new artists or people who haven't been here in a while a chance. I'm bringing Americana-leaning acts, but also world music and other genres."
The band Hiss Golden Messenger features singer/songwriter Michael Taylor and multi-instrumentalist/recording engineer Scott Hirsch. Both were once members of San Francisco-based indie rock band The Court & Spark. Porter says their North Carolina folk rock band is "a growing buzz in the music world." Other acts he is excited about are collaborations, like the Kronos Quartet's Pete Seeger @ 100 that has the string quartet joined by special guest artists including the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
Some acts earn his admiration with a rare, special sound. One of those acts, which Porter described as "the second coming of the Everly Brothers," is the L.A. duo The Milk Carton Kids. "Their harmonies are astounding: I can listen to them all day long."
This year marks the duo's third visit to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids said that he and partner Kenneth Pattengale have come to regard playing the festival as a kind of homecoming. "It's the most remarkable place," he said. "There's nothing else like it in the world. They've been booking us since the beginning. We find a real home there."
With a new album, The Only Ones, poised to break out in November, Ryan said the duo's set list is still in formation. "We'll play new songs and old. A festival set outdoors is shorter, bigger; it feels risky to introduce longer, dirge-ier songs. It needs jolts of energy."
The duo introduced one huge jolt of energy when it included a backing band on its fourth and most recent studio album, All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn't Do. "We needed to get out of ruts and patterns we'd fallen into as a duo," Ryan said. "We wrote for an 'unknown' ensemble, and that shattered the rules. We carried that over to the new CD. It liberated us."
But it still left Ryan thinking about being loose and improvisational enough in his "rhythm guitar and second fiddle" position to amplify Pattengale's virtuoso picking skills and tendency to "treat time and tempo like water." Ryan said his job is primarily to provide forward motion, use his thumb as the bass player, and provide the backbeat in grooves "where [beats] 1 and 3 have to move around a lot."
As a lyricist, writing off-kilter, non sequiturs that revolve truthfully around an emotional core is a goal. "I like to distill an emotion or essence and use lyrics that make the other person feel or see what you are seeing," Ryan said. "It can be more opaque than just saying what you feel. You can write circumspectly around something and make people feel what you feel."
While their melting, golden voices and evocative lyrics often provoke a comparison to Simon and Garfunkel, Ryan said the parallels are not a straight line. "When we're writing harmonies, I think Kenneth is actually drawing from chamber music," Ryan said. "He comes from a cello background: whenever he puts on Dvoák cello suites I hear influences." The topics they write about — relationships, society and ideas and principles worth fighting for — bring back ideals from 20th century pop, rock and indie music. "It's about what it feels like to be an American. For those of us who still have hope, it's about fighting for what we think is the best part of us. It's about a fight in a marriage, a band, a person. We find out what the essence is and what parts are worth preserving."
About what is worth preserving for the duo, Ryan has no doubt. "Truthfully, one of the most important lessons we've learned is that we are the band that we are," he said. "We're not playing a set people will dance to. If people are coming to see us, it's because they like those slow, sad songs. We have to trust that and remember that it's wonderful to sit on a grassy hill and listen to two people sing."