Monday, August 18, 2008

Guest Blogger: Report from the Saratoga Music Festival

Here is guest blogger Ken Dixon checking in with a report from Sunday's Saratoga Music Festival. (For Ken's Falcon Ridge rundown, see his post on Steve Ide's blog.)

Dear Matt and Ellen:

I had never before been to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but when I got the notice from Gillian Welch last month that she and David Rawlings were to make a rare visit to our neck of the woods, (3.5 hours from home in Shelton, CT, ugh) I decided to go for it and get a $40 lawn ticket. Not knowing how long it was going to take, I left home at 8 a.m. for the concert that was to start at 2:30 and culminate in Bob Dylan’s current blues set.

At 11:30, they were turning cars away from the lot, but I drove in anyway, found a shady spot, drank some water, ate some bread and butter, chopped tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, poured on olive oil and put the lunch in tupperware in a cooler, where the wine stayed the entire day because they don’t allow alcohol in the parking lot and venue.

That’s my first gripe with SPAC. They allow wine and beer in picnics brought in for dance recitals and symphonies that occur in the shed in the nicely wooded park, but rock fans are treated poorly: coolers rejected, bags searched. They want you to purchase 12-ounce draft beers for $9 and 16-ouncers for $11. Then you’re fenced in, in a “beer garden” reminiscent of a NYPD holding pen from the 2004 GOP National Convention, behind the concession stands, so the music on stage at the bottom of the hill is a rumor.

I sat in the shade, reading the Sunday NY Times until the queue started forming about 1:15. At about 1:30, two lines were allowed to enter, slooooowly, as people were getting searched. They opened a third line. I finally got in, set my folding chair in a nice close spot and wandered to the aforementioned beer garden. No dice. It wasn’t going to open until 3 o’clock.

The music finally started at about 2:30. Gillian and David came out at 3:25. David was wearing a cowboy hat. They opened with “Miss Ohio,” from their last record. Indeed, it has been so long since they had a new release, it could BE their last record, for all I know.

Gill remarked that Nashville is in a drought, while the northeast has been getting soaked. “I feel like a mushroom,” she joked. They played eight songs in the set, including “I Want to Sing that Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “My First Lover” (“You kind of look like a banjo crowd,” Gill said) and a couple with which I’m unfamiliar and am thus hopeful they’re recording them. The last song in the set was “Time (The Revelator)” and the huge applause (indicating that the crowd was cooler than I thought) brought them back for an encore. Unfortunately, the sound people had turned off their microphones, so Gill and David stood there, playing one chord, for about a minute, until ONE of the mic sets was turned on for “I’ll Fly Away.” David played his guitar break, holding that old Epiphone up to Gill’s vocal mic, while she strummed chords in the lower instrument mic.

Steve Earle came out around 4:25, kicking off with “Come Back Woody Guthrie.” The set featured a lot of things from his new CD, which is pretty New York-centric. He mostly worked with acoustic guitar and a loop pedal with some sample beats for a rap thing he was doing with the guitar. It was interesting.

Steve used the f-word in the usual exciting variety of nouns, adjectives and verbs, then made a concession to age: “”This is the end of the tour and I realize that these glasses don’t work too well anymore.” He came back for an encore, too.

At 5:30, around the time I was getting thirsty, Conor Oberst came out with his “Mystic Valley Band,” that was written on the bass drum. I’m unfamiliar with what he’s been doing since his last Bright Eyes recording. The new stuff sounded good, but I had been sitting down for several hours without a beer and this was supposed to be a summer festival, so I went looking for brew.

I had been wondering why there weren’t too many sketchy people in attendance, but then I saw the beer yard. Yeah, an $11 Magic Hat, then another and the absurdity of some of the people became plainer.

Many were wearing old Grateful Dead shirts. Some looked as if they’ve been living in the woods nearby in the 20 years since The Dead last played there. I imagined a lot of the anti-alcohol rules were the result of Jerry and the kids.

I was also dismayed by the ubiquitous cigarette smoking, especially among 20-something women. It was enough to make the few pot smokers, including one named Ken, appropriately enough, who sat next to me with his horse-trainer girlfriend Claire, seem purposeful.

Anyway, the big surprise for me was the appearance of Glen Hansard and Marketa Inglova, whose song “Falling Slowly” from the movie “Once” won the Oscar this year. I think most people didn’t know who they were until “Falling Slowly” cranked up halfway through their set. It got a huge ovation and was one of the highlights of the day (along with the scary, dark ride home on the Taconic Parkway with the deer waving at me from the shoulder). Glen called Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison “for me, the Holy Trinity” and “I want to say it’s fookin’ brilliant to play with Bob Dylan. It’s just fookin’ great to be here.” Maybe he wasn’t caged up when he was sipping his beer.

At 8:15 Levon Helm came out, setting up his kit on the right of the stage. He had five guys in a complete horn section, who added a great New Orleans touch to the set. Little Sammy Davis played blues harp, starting off the set with “Baby Please Come Home.” Helm, proving that you can look spry and frail at the same time, sang early in the set and kept great time throughout, except for a few tunes when he came out front and sang with his daughter. Levon also played mandolin on “Rag Momma Rag.”

Most of the headliners, including Earle, Hansard and Inglova came out for Helm’s encore, with Gill this time donning a cowboy hat to sing harmony on “The Weight.”

Dylan came out at 9:53, but I was starting to fade by then and knew I needed to get home by 2 to get six hours sleep to get back to work.

People I spoke with said the venue can accommodate 30,000 and I guess I could believe it if there were a Dead show, but even the number 10,000 seems a lot because of the small parking areas around the place.

Anyway, Dylan (who I saw six months earlier) cranked through “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and “Rolling and Tumbling,” before I had to go. I punked out and left for the long ride home. The evening was capped off by the flat tire I had THIS MORNING, on I-91 on the way to Hartford. I’m lucky it didn’t happen
in the dark last night.

Love, Ken.

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