If I Had a Heart, I Might've Left It in San Francisco

Remember, like, two-and-a-half months ago when I wrote that I was going to San Francisco? No? Well, it's true, I did. And I did. And since I got back, I have been slammed with lots of work, a few other quick trips, and general malaise (can one be slammed with malaise?). So I never wrote a proper recap. Here's the attempt to rectify that.

Day 1

My first day was my day to not be a freeloading houseguest with my hosts in Oakland. The Finches are always nice enough to tell me they'd be happy to have me anytime, so I figured that the weekend of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival was as good a time as any. But seeing as the festival was going to take up three full days of my trip, and I wanted to spend one of the other days checking out a Giants game at AT&T Park, that meant I wouldn't have a ton of time to spend with the Finches, particularly their awesome boys, Marcus and Dean. On festival days, I pretty much saw them for an hour in the morning and that was it.

On Day 1, however, we packed as much fun as possible into the late afternoon and early evening, and within minutes of me stepping foot in the Finch house, I was whisked away by Marcus for playtime and bughouse admiring. And though I saw some great music at the festival, I think playtime with Marcus and Dean was the bigger highlight of the trip. And dinner courtesy of the Finches was pretty damn great, too.

By the way, no photos of the kids, due to Tinsel and Rot's strict No Photos of Minors Who Have Sprung From the Loins of People I Know (Unless They're Really Great Photos) policy. It doesn't feel right to have pictures of me and Brigitte Nielsen alongside pictures of my friends' kids.

Day 2

When I booked the trip, I didn't even think to look to see if the Giants were in town. Then I saw that, not only were they in town, but they had a day game on the lone full non-festival day of the trip. Score! Then, I thought, "Well, it'd be cool if I could see Cy Young Award winner and probable weed enthusiast Tim Lincecum pitch." Sure enough he did. Score again! Every vacation should go this well.

After taking the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco (it goes right under the Bay Bridge, making it a slightly cooler trip than the Staten Island Ferry, though, on the minus side, there were far fewer crazy people), I stopped at the farmers' market at the ferry terminal and discovered my new favorite fruit--the pluot. If you're ever wondering what to get me for any occasion, I recommend dried pluots (or the real thing, if they're in season). I tore through my first, worried that I wouldn't be able to bring them into AT&T Park, but my fears were unfounded, which made me wish I (a) didn't eat one like a man heading to the electric chair and (b) bought more. But I rectified that at the Saturday farmers' market.

Then, it was on to the game. I wanted to get there right when gates open, in the hopes of seeing some batting practice. Then when I got into the stadium and saw an empty field, I realized that it was both a day game after a night game and the next-to-last series of the season for two teams out of the playoffs, so why would the teams take batting practice? So much for that plan.

I now had two hours to kill, so I explored pretty much every inch of the park, from the Levi's Landing in right field to the open-air press box behind home plate to the giant glove and Coke bottle in left field. A few weeks before the trip, I discovered that the Coke bottle was actually a functional slide. So the inner debate about whether or not to go on the slide began. And that debate continued as I stood in front of the bottle, desperately hoping to see a full-grown human being go down the slide alone to make it seem more socially acceptable. Finally, I saw a group of older teens head for the slide and thought, "Hey, close enough." So I headed up to the slide. Come on, how many times am I gonna have the chance to slide down the Coke bottle at AT&T Park? Carpe diem, no?

You may be surprised to find out that the slide is not really built for a 32-year-old man (I know, I know, I should sue, but I'm willing to let it, er, slide). So, climbing up the tiny ladder not made for my body and then contorting my legs into a position in which I would be able to both descend down the slide and not end up in the hospital upon said descent was not a particularly easy task. But, fear not gentle reader, I did it. And my knee only hurt for, like, six hours afterward, so it all went just fine. I pondered filming the slide down for your enjoyment, but, really, I can only do so much to look like a buffoon in public before my embarrassment threshold is crossed. And, in case you're wondering where my embarrassment threshold rests, look no further than carrying a camera in my hand while going down a children's slide.

Before I knew it, it was game time, and Lincecum was throwing the first pitch. All in all, it wasn't a particularly well-played game, but I saw Lincecum, Dan Haren, and Randy Johnson (in what should, if he has any sense, be one of his last appearances) pitch, had a pretty solid turkey sandwich, got to hear the Giants faithful give Rich Aurilia a standing O during his last home game as a Giant, and saw the home team win, 7-3. Plus, I got a rad Lincecum winter hat that has rarely left my head since I got home.

After the game, I checked out City Lights Bookstore (because I foolishly forgot to go last year), the slightly odd Beat Museum (featuring Allen Ginsberg's organ...write your own joke), and some other points of interest in North Beach (including The Stinking Rose, immortalized in "The Real World San Francisco"...probably should've looked for the house, too).

On the ferry ride back, I preached the You Must Go to a Ramble sermon to some guys from western New York who spotted my Levon Helm jacket. One of them was some sort of lip balm entrepreneur, because he handed me a few and told me to give them to the two women seated next to and across from me, because "they're gonna love 'em." He thought they were with me, and when he realized they weren't, pushed me even harder to give them the lip balm, making for an awkward exchange between me and a middle-aged lip-balm entrepreneur who was trying to live vicariously through me. I tried to give him back the friggin' lip balm so he'd stop talking to me, but he would have none of it. But I did not execute the "hey-here's-some-lip-balm-now-why-don't-we-go-back-to-my-cousin's-place-and-make-out-in-the-attic-while-the-kids-are-sleeping" gambit Mr. Lip Balm so desperately wanted to see come to fruition.

I got back at a reasonable enough hour to see the kids still awake (and have more good home cooking), so more fun was had. After showing me various jumping and flopping tricks on the living room furniture, Marcus informed me that he was cooler than I was, which, after thinking it over, I kind of had to concede. However, I informed him that I could whistle, and he couldn't, so I think I'm a little closer to at least being as cool as he is. It's a daily struggle.

Day 3

Friday was the opening day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which meant the kickoff afternoon set from MC Hammer. Yes, MC Hammer. It was a little challenging finding a good spot to take in the Hammer Experience, as the show was intended for the children of the Bay Area, who had arrived en masse in an impressive fleet of yellow school buses. The non-teaching adults (when a security guard asked me if I was a teacher, I thought about lying just for a second, so I could get a better sightline) congregated on the sidelines, peeking around hills and tree branches to get a glimpse of Hammer Time. Some even took to climbing.

I stayed on the ground and moved around looking for a decent camera angle. Eventually, I gave up and just enjoyed the show. And, yes, "U Can't Touch This" was badass.

With a few hours to kill before the set at the main stage began, I decided I'd rather just put down my jacket and (largely empty) bag at a spot on the lawn and then come back later in the afternoon to see John Prine and Lyle Lovett. Everyone around me looked pretty friendly, and I made note of the beach umbrella and bulldog behind me in case I couldn't find my spot when I got back.

I walked through a good portion of Golden Gate Park, eventually winding my way to Amoeba Records, where I picked up a bunch of cool records (that was so many records ago, I can't rightly recall what was in that batch, other than a Tennessee Ernie Ford "Jolly Green Giant" record and an old W.C. Fields record, but it was cool). I got back to the park in the middle of The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello's) set and found the lawn pretty damn full. But I made my way over to the area where I suspected my bag and jacket would be and soon saw the beach umbrella (and a very tired bulldog). Unfortunately, I didn't see my jacket or bag. Hmmm. I plopped myself down and started panicking a bit (mainly over the Levon Helm hoodie that I now suspected might be gone), looking all around for a sign of my stuff. Finally, underneath a blanket and slightly obscured by two large camping chairs that were not there when I left, I found my stuff. Phew. Soon after, Steve Earle and Allison Moorer came out and pogoed to Morello's version of "This Land Is Your Land," and I joined them. Order had been restored to my musical universe.

John Prine and Lyle Lovett were both great, though my enjoyment of the Prine set was slightly offset by the fact that my "area" now consisted of a patch of grass slightly larger than a record album and my knees were in my nose for most of the set. But when Prine sang "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," none of that mattered. And bringing Hayes Carll out to sing "Paradise" wasn't bad either. Prine came back during Lovett's set, which started with "Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel" (in which the phrase "choke my chicken" is happily repeated quite often) and hit particularly awesome heights when backup singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens joined in.

All in all, a pretty good day in the park. Of course, that was not enough for me, so I went to go see Jon Langford, the Sadies, Sally Timms, Rico Bell, and Rosie Flores at the Swedish American Hall. I missed the first set because I made the mistake of taking the bus through Haight Ashbury (going through there twice in one day is more than any normal man can handle), but the second set was, as is the norm at any show involving Jon Langford, ridiculously entertaining. If you don't enjoy yourself at a show where Jon Langford is on the stage, there's something irredeemably wrong with you.

It wasn't too late when the show ended, and the Finches were nice enough to give me a key to their house and instructions to come back whenever I wanted, so I felt obligated to check out the diner I passed on my way to the Swedish American Hall. If I see a sign like this, I can't walk past it twice without going in.

The It's Tops Coffee Shop gets a hearty thumbs up from me. My only regret is that I'd had pancakes for breakfast, so I felt it would be wrong to have pancakes twice in one day. I might've been delirious from all the music.

I checked the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Twitter feed when I got back Friday night and saw a Tweet from Friday afternoon that said Robert Plant was going to join Buddy Miller for a few songs at the Great American Music Hall that night. Well, that would've been cool to see, I thought, but, hey, Buddy Miller's playing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on Saturday. If Robert Plant can wake up by noon and get to the Towers of Gold stage, maybe he'll sing a few songs with Miller then.

Day 4

He did. Right after Emmylou Harris sang a few songs with Miller. Nice.

Starting off the first full day of the festival seeing Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, and Robert Plant didn't suck. At that point, I could've been raped by a hippie in the woods after he forced hash brownies down my throat while singing "Uncle John's Band" and I still would've given Hardly Strictly Bluegrass the biggest seal of approval I possibly could.

And, amazingly, that's just what happened. The hippie's name was Sunshine, and he had a decent tenor. The brownies were a touch dry.

I kid. Or, do I?

No, really, I kid. The rest of the day was full of a ton of great music. As Miller's set started, I parked my gear more successfully at the Star Stage, which was back-to-back with the Towers of Gold Stage. So, after sneaking a peak at the end of Guy Clark's set at the Rooster Stage and getting the general lay of the land, I went back and forth between those two stages for a few hours (successfully finding a path in the woods that could get me from one stage to the other in about three minutes), seeing Miller and company, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women (whose fiddle player Amy Farris was found dead earlier in the week), and Okkervil River before checking out the action at some of the other stages. I had to make the tough decision between the Old 97's and Billy Joe Shaver, but went with Shaver, a decision I don't regret at all (even though Langford joined the Old 97's for "Over the Cliff"). If there were a cable network devoted solely to Billy Joe Shaver, I don't think I'd ever leave my house. I've heard most of the jokes and between-song patter by now, but that doesn't make it any less great when I hear it again. And, of course, there are the songs. I must've missed "Georgia on a Fast Train" (damn!), but "Live Forever" and "Try Again" were just fine, thank you.

Then, I took my first long (and musically satisfying) excursion of the day, checking out The Duhks, who were running late on the Porch Stage (the smallest of the five stages), for 20 minutes or so before taking the back way past the Banjo Stage as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sang "Look at Miss Ohio," which then blended into Rosie Flores, Jon Langford, and the Sadies doing "Big River" on the Arrow Stage, before I reached my final destination of the Towers of Gold Stage, where pretty Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives were doing their thing. As I settled in at the front of the stage and thought about all the great music I'd heard just getting to the stage, I realized that life wasn't bad at all.

It was pretty easy throughout to weasel my way into a good spot without blocking people
, but I probably overstepped my bounds during my one trip onto the main lawn at the Banjo Stage to see Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes. Just enough people were bailing because of the wind that had picked up over the course of the afternoon that I was able to work my way to the middle of the lawn for most of the set. I crouched as best I could and made sure I wasn't standing directly in front of anyone. I like to think I was pretty successful, and no one told me otherwise, so all was good. And it was cool to see Steve Earle with a band again, albeit a bluegrass one and not the hard-rocking Dukes. But a bluegrass band with Darrell Scott, Casey Driessen, Tim O'Brien, and Dennis Crouch aint nothing to sniff at.

Eight hours of music was enough for me, so I headed back toward Oakland.

Day 5

After the requisite churching in Oakland and a rough go through 49ers' traffic, it was back to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Booker T and the Drive By Truckers on the Arrow Stage. Seeing as Booker T and the DBTs didn't have any other dates booked, I figured this might be my last chance to see them supporting Booker T's "Potato Hole." Their set, in fact, was one of the main deciding factors in going to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and though it didn't beat Saturday's first set, it was still a good time. There was yet another brief moment of panic when I made my way out of the crowd and realized I didn't have my Levon hoodie, but I retraced my steps (probably annoying a good portion of the crowd) and found it, just in time to see Booker T pick up the guitar and sing "(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay."

Then it was up the hill and through the trees to see the Chieftains (well, I mostly heard them) on the Star Stage before heading back to the Arrow to see a little bit of Rodney Crowell and the Outsiders (and special guest Rosie Flores on "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight"). Then I made my first real foray into the lawn area at the Rooster Stage to see Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue. I wanted to make sure I saw at least one band per day that I knew nothing about (Okkervil River was Saturday's band), and the bio for Farris piqued my interest, so to the Rooster Stage I went. I was able to once again find a good, nonintrusive spot up front and then thoroughly enjoyed Farris's gospel-tinged set, highlighted by the vocals of the McCrary sisters, Anna and Regina (the latter of whom also sang with Buddy Miller on Saturday).

I was tempted to stay for Mavis Staples, but since I'd seen her at Newport, I headed back to the Arrow Stage to see the end of Aimee Mann's set, and then wormed my way onto the rail for Todd Snider's set. When I saw the crew setting up for a band, I got excited, as it had been a few years since I'd seen Snider with a band. For this show, he was backed by Great American Taxi, and though the set was good, all the setting up seemed to cut into Snider's allotted set time--and prevented me from making it to the Porch Stage to see Elizabeth Cook's set. I thought about cutting out halfway through Snider's set to see Cook, but then I realized I was comfortable and in a good spot, so I stayed put.

The hardest part of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is just accepting that you're gonna miss out on some stuff you want to see. Aside from missing Cook, I missed just about every band on the Banjo Stage over the weekend, including the unbeatable back-to-back-to-back of Doc Watson
(though I did hear him sing "Workin' Man Blues" while grabbing some food), Earl Scruggs, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and Del McCoury. But, after checking out the Knitters on the Rooster Stage (and receiving several offers to buy a beer because I was standing next to someone's cooler), I did make it over to the Banjo Stage to see a little bit of Emmylou Harris before calling it a weekend and trying out some California pizza (not awful) on the way home. I appreciated their abandonment of "You've Tried the Rest, Now Try the Best" in favor of "You've Tried Them All, Now Try Pasquale's."

Over the course of three days in Golden Gate Park, I saw full or significant portions of sets from 20 different bands, got some solid exercise going from stage to stage, and had maybe the best musical experience ever--certainly the best I've ever had at a large festival. I'd like to go back next year. You oughta be there, too.

Day 6

And then I had to go home, to dreams of the next vacation.

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