Things I learned with a backstage pass at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Last weekend, I got the opportunity to be an on-stage presenter — you know, the guy who introduces the acts and hectors you to pick up your trash — at the magnificent Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Here are a few things I learned:

1) Performers wait til they’re about to go on stage before “visiting the facilities.” I’m standing in line waiting to use the portable bathrooms backstage, and yes, even backstage they have lines. Our line had about a dozen people in it. The queue for the toilet outside among the masses was roughly equivalent to the population of Daly City.

So, I’m waiting with one young woman in front of me who is hopping on one leg with some degree of urgency. Suddenly at our shoulder appears the great neo-country guitarist and singer Jim Lauderdale in his resplendent Nudie Suit jacket, kindly asking, “I’m about to go on stage, can I cut in line?” My bathroom-line friend grimaces but, she’s charmed by Lauderdale, so she says OK.

She continues her hopping, regretting her decision to be courteous. Just then, I glance back toward the stage and heading straight at us is the show’s headliner, Elvis Costello. I glance back at the girl, now dancing in a circle to stave off wetting her pants. Uh, this is going to be interesting. In an instant, I’m face to face with Elvis Flippin’ Costello, who smiles and gestures toward the portable.

Earlier in the day, my teenaged daughter said that my goal for the day should be to somehow touch Elvis Costello. “What? Like lay my hands on him? That ain’t going to happen,” I said. But my daughter’s weird notion came back to me as Elvis stood in front of me in his glasses and that gap in his front teeth. Brazenly, I reached out and put my hand on his elbow, “Of course, Elvis, be my guest.” He then turned to my hopping friend, who grimaced, bent over and gestured for him to go ahead.

Here is where I hoped Elvis would notice the distress the girl was in, and be a gentleman about it by letting her go ahead, which would give me a few moments alone shooting the breeze with a musician who’s been a favorite of mine for 30 years. But no. Elvis took the next open stall. Perhaps he thought she was just doing a little dance while imagining him singing “Oliver’s Army,” who knows? There were a lot of people dancing.

2) Joan Baez must know something the rest of us do not. One thing I noticed seeing all those musical icons up close without the media filter was the ravages of age. It was honest age — the alt.country crowd doesn’t go in for cosmetic surgery, generally speaking — but age nevertheless. I was sitting in one of the backstage tents on a sofa, enjoying a quick break. It took a few minutes before I noticed who was sitting across from me, though I should have figured it out from the luxurious silver hair. It was, of course, the queenly Emmylou Harris. A few minutes later, as I was desperately trying to act non-plussed, up walks a small woman with a smart gray haircut. Once I noticed it was Joan Baez, I instinctively stood and offered her my seat. She smiled and waved it off, but I insisted. Even on the cusp of 70, she still had those radiant eyes and apple cheeks.

3) The best seat at any party is next to Robert Earl Keen. I spent the Saturday evening of the Festival at a private party at Slim’s, the SoMa club, watching many of the greatest musicians in Americana folk perform for each other. Thanks to my friend Sleepy John Sandidge, I sat next to the wry Mr. Keen most of the night, marveling at the man’s dexterity at entertaining a table. It’s no surprise that the man who wrote “The Road Goes On Forever” is a master storyteller. Yes, I made him dish about his famous friends — Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, etc. No, I won’t repeat any of it.

4) “This Land is Your Land” is the national anthem, at least to this demographic. On the Rooster Stage where I worked, Woody Guthrie’s timeless anthem was performed twice during the weekend, first at a songwriter’s showcase featuring Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, John Doe and David Olney, then again at the Sunday evening finale by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. It’s a song that hits you where others can’t reach.

5) It’s utterly mind-blowing to tell 20,000 (or 40,000, I can’t tell which) people that “Your San Francisco Giants are the champions of the West!” or “Ladies and gentlemen, a true rock ‘n’ roll master, Nick Lowe!” I’m not the kind of guy who elicits roars from oceans of people every day, so the power of the microphone was exhilarating, to say the least. My Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” impression kills at parties, but it’s a good thing I suppressed it here. I was talking to 40,000 (or 60,000, who knows) people and not a single one of them came to see me — except my wife, and I’m 100 percent sure about her.

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