Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion come from American folk and literature royalty. Sara Lee Guthrie is the granddaughter of songwriter Woody Guthrie, and Irion is the great-nephew of the great American writer John Steinbeck. The idea was to have a festival that celebrated the lives and accomplishments of their famous and influential ancestors with music from acts that carry on the spirit of Guthrie and Steinbeck and exhibits from their archives featuring rarely seen photos and posters.
It was a great idea. Really, it was. But the organizers of the event ran into a few problems that gave the festival an overwhelming sense of disconnect. The line-up was a bit of a head-scratcher, leaving many festival goers with a question on their mind, “Hmmm…?” I was especially perplexed by the choice of the concert’s headliner, Sheryl Crow.
The sparsely filled seats at the Sleeptrain Pavilion in Concord, California were treated to great folksy tunes from Sara Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. Many of the songs were politically charged songs, the highlight of their set being “Gervais,” a sharp-tongued commentary about the Confederate flag on display on the lawn of the South Carolina State Capitol building.
At 3:00 in the afternoon Henry Rollins walked onto the stage, apparently baffling the audience. Henry Rollins, former voice of legendary punk rock band Black Flag, is currently a guy who tries to fight The Man by taking vacations to Iran and posting open letters to Ann Coulter on the Internet. On paper this choice may have made sense. Rollins has the same sort of anti-establishment attitude that fueled the careers of Guthrie and Steinbeck, a biting wit that digs a knife a little deeper into The Man’s side every time he opens his mouth. But I don’t think anybody considered the repercussions of throwing Rollins up against cranky Sheryl Crow fans who had paid $80 for their seat and were now paying $11 a beer. The crowd was restless, anxiously awaiting their sunny pop rock queen, and listening to Henry Rollins rant about airport security and George W. Bush was beyond their capability. So they did what any good Woody Guthrie fan would do to someone speaking out against the government: they heckled him.
Son Volt was next to perform. Jay Farrar, the leader of the five-piece country rock band from St. Louis, has been putting in time at the Woody Guthrie National Archives, recording some of the 3,500 songs Guthrie left behind unfinished at his death. Son Volt ripped through 45 minutes of songs, including material from all of the band’s albums, selections from Farrar’s solo career and a Waylon Jennings cover, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” which is best known to Farrar fans as a choice bonus cut on the Uncle Tupelo (Farrar’s former band with Jeff Tweedy) album Anodyne. Despite a rocking performance, especially on the 8-minute atmospheric jam “Medication,” the crowd’s reaction was lukewarm.
The crowd started to fill out for Mike Ness, the lead singer of the band Social Distortion. Ness fans stuck out like a sore thumb among the straw hat- clad Guthrie fans and Dooney & Burke toting Crow fans, with their greased hair, cuffed jeans and gratuitous facial piercings. Ness and his band delivered a set of classic country covers and one requisite Social Distortion song, though of course it was an obscure non-hit which only greasy cuffed Levi’s-wearing 30-somethings recognized.
By this point the natives were growing restless. Two poets from a Bay Area youth poet organization performed their award winning poems and were greeted by drunken fools who decided to spout their own slam poems.
The indie rock darling Cat Power tried her damnedest to engage the crowd, going as far as roaming about the seated concert goers and singing Credence Clearwater Revival’s classic “Fortunate One” in people’s faces (mine included. Yes, that’s right, Cat Power sang in my face).
Cat Power’s blues influenced set of covers set the tone for The Black Keys. If The Black Keys had been the headliner for this concert this line-up would have made sense. The two-man duo from Akron, Ohio blew the crowd away. With just drums, one guitar and one vocalist, the Black Keys create a sound so full it’s hard to believe that all the noise on stage was coming from just two men. Their swampy, gutsy blues drew the reluctant crowd out of its shell and set everybody a hootin’ and hollerin’. The Black Keys’ most recent release “Attack and Release” undoubtedly saw a spike in sales the next day, most of which probably came from SUV driving, golf playing 40-somethings.
And this would have been the logical closing point for the festival, but they just had to keep going.
What can I say about Sheryl Crow? I know, I know, she’s been through a lot these past few years: surviving breast cancer, breaking up with Lance Armstrong, breaking up with Kid Rock, having to face the fact that she dated Kid Rock and, of course, writing “Soak Up The Sun.”
There’s a chance that you, dear reader, are a fan of the song “Soak Up The Sun.” The drunk chicks behind me that spilled their $11 beer on my purse sure were (“OH MY GOD! THIS IS MY JAM!”) but I am not. Don’t get me wrong. I used to really like Sheryl Crow. “Tuesday Night Music Club” is a great album. “If It Makes You Happy” may be one of my favorite songs. But it was once Crow herself got happy that things started to go downhill and “Soak Up The Sun” is like a glaring neon sign that, if Sheryl Crow’s catalogue were a sitcom, would read “Shark Jumping Here.”
So for next year’s This Land Is Your Land benefit concert: either a smaller venue or multiple stages, less expensive tickets, and arrange a more cohesive line-up. Because if I have to hear Sheryl Crow’s funky jam about how “Gasoline Will All Be Free,” I may have to waste my life savings on $11 beers in order keep my faith in music.
Really, it was a great idea.