Haggard, Kristofferson, Randall

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
And Elliot Randall, Kris Kristofferson & Merle Haggard
Mountain Winery, Saratoga
By Victoria Joyce
Photography Jennifer McGaffey
October 1&2 2011

A weekend trip to Northern Cali to see Elliot Randall open for two living legends brought an unexpected surprise that left us flabbergasted. “It’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this weekend too.” Oh really? What’s that? The answer is a killer!

For the past eleven years local billionaire venture capitalist, Warren Hellman has popped for a free music festival in Golden Gate Park for all the hippies, punks and leftover beatniks. For free. Held on the same hallowed ground that Bill Graham once popped for the flatbed truck Jimi & Janis would grace, back in the day. Far out, man. 

This thing was amazing. We are still shaking our head. Five stages and 89 acts with this year’s headliners including but not limited to: Robert Plant, John Prine, Chris Isaak, David Bromberg (a personal favorite), Zigaboo Modeliste, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Irma Thomas, Buckethead, Hugh Laurie, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, The Mekons and Gomez. And Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard (more about them later). 

Wait, Hugh Laurie? House? Yes, and yes, 90-something Earl Scruggs performed the theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies. Happy? 

Obviously having fun with the name of this fest, “Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass,” begins with Bluegrass and branches off in EVERY direction. One word: Buckethead. Or is that officially two words? Old timers told us Nick Lowe is a regular but he didn’t show up this year. Nick Lowe!?!? We LOVE Nick Lowe!! Damn! Elvis Costello was last year’s headliner. You get the picture. Excellent music loving musicians. 

Half a million people showed up for this. Woodstock much? It was a glorious thing to witness but a little frustrating to get around from one stage to another and catch all the goodies. People of all ages and shades were in the park with their dogs and their kids. The weather was beyond beautiful; three perfect Indian Summer Days. Groovin’ on the grass of the deeply verdant city park that has cradled a wealth of good vibrations. Like wow, stay away from the orange acid, man. 

For the uninitiated, GG Park borders on the famous Haight Ashbury neighborhood, and is a half-mile wide and three miles long, dense with towering and fragrant eucalyptus and evergreen with lots and lots of flowers, man. Lined with winding roads, lakes, nooks and crannies, the festival being centered near the historic Speedway Meadows, home to many outdoor concerts. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. 

The primary purpose of our visit to the beloved Bay Area was to see Elliot Randall, Country Alt /Americana man on the move, opening for Kris and Merle at The Mountain Winery on Sunday, October 2nd

Another delightful experience, this out-of-the-way venue is the hundred year old, historically restored Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga, a tiny town in the mountains to the east of San Jose and Silicon Valley. The view is celestial. 

With the old winery lit up like a cathedral and the intimate 2500-seat mini-amphitheater nestled under the chilly star-sparkly skies, this was a slice of heaven hearing these two living legends, but not before hearing a legend-to-be, Mr. Randal and his soon-to-be-ex-bass player, Danilo Lopez. 

Elliot kept it mellow and low key for his acoustic set. Sitting on a stool, he threw in a joke about having two strong closers for his show “so be sure to stick around.” Hee, hee.  But seriously folks, he qualified that later with identifying Haggard and Kristofferson as his songwriting heroes, “This is a huge honor for me.” 

Randall’s set featured acoustic versions of songs from his current album “Caffeine and Gasoline,” including the title cut. Forlorn ballads with images of broken hearts, broken guitar strings and pick up trucks. And going back home. Eliott brings a modern energy and wry sense of humor to a classic Country and Western genre. 

Randall’s songs are effortless and easy. His voice is subtle and true held back just a touch like a really great saloon singer giving you the false impression he don’t care at all. And the heart is there on the sleeve the whole time. All you can do is swoon. 

There was a short break between the Randall and Haggard/Kristofferson. The PA lured folks to the Hag Store where Merle’s merchandise was for sale. And he had everything imaginable with his name on it. What a hoot! 

Kris came out first with his guitar and harmonica around his neck ala Dylan and dedicated his song to the veterans of all wars and those opposers. Playing both sides, nice.  Haggard is still famous for his anti-hippie anthem “Oakie From Muskogee” but tonight he’s playing both sides too. The song gets a big whooping laugh. With age comes wisdom. And great peace. There is an overwhelming sense of love and peace in the music from these two highwaymen. 

Backed up with six players including slide guitar and the best fiddle player we’ve ever heard.  And found out during the set Kris’s son was on guitar. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” 

Hearing a silver-haired Kristofferson sing “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a ride” was an absolute thrill.  “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” is easily one of the most beautiful lines in American Song.  “Good enough for me, Good enough for me and Bobby McGee” and Kristofferson added a whispered “and Janis.” We got all misty. 

Elliot Randall and the Deadmen are working on a new album due out in a few months while Merle and Kris are continuing to tour through the end of the year in the Southwest. 

Take that ribbon from your hair.