Hardly Strictly and Two Oceans Trio in New Zealand

Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadows was packed with about 100K music fans during the peak hours of this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Today's paper estimated that 750 thousand people would attend this year's ninth annual free event.

Yesterday on the west facing Banjo stage, I played a set with Mike Bub, Casey Driessen, Kenny Malone, Darrell Scott, and my sister Mollie O'Brien.

When she lit into a big fat high note on "Shut De Doe," the crowd responded as one with a spontaneous yell, folding the thrill back to us on stage. I also sat in with Steve Martin, who caught his hat in the air after it blew off during his set. Then as the sun disappeared in the west, in 35-degree weather, and wind gusts of 50 miles an hour, I played the final set of the day with Steve Earle's Bluegrass Dukes. Dennis Crouch wedged himself and the bass against the stage, as his instrument was the biggest sail on stage. Late in the set, I grabbed Steve's guitar for a few numbers and was blown back several feet. I was glad to be wearing a Fishing Music ball cap, and a polyester blend All Black's jersey. Still, about 40 minutes into the set, my fingers felt like stones, the only feeling the sting of the strings as they vibrated against the fingertips.

Today I'm playing in Darrell's band for the first set on the Banjo stage. Mid-point in Darrell's set, I looked to my right and saw Robert Plant sitting on the stage skirt, watching us play. I tried my best to ignore him, thinking he might go away. He did.

When it came time for my solo on Darrell's song "With A Memory Like Mine," I closed my eyes and thought of my long lost brother Trip, who died in Viet Nam back in 1968. I got lost in the music and when I finished and looked up, four Canadian geese were flying right over the stage against a clear blue sky. The sight took my breath away.

Several years ago this festival took place during "Fleet Week," a time when US Navy displays its big ships in San Francisco Bay. The Blue Angels flew over the festival grounds several times that year, to Ricky Skaggs' delight, and to Steve Earle's chagrin. I have to admit the geese in formation made less noise, and were a heap more meaningful to me. I decided the four were Trip, my mom, (both former Marines), and Charles Sawtelle, and Frank Edmonson, my departed Hot Rize cohorts.

Wednesday – Friday, October 7-9, 2009

Kit and I left San Anselmo California at 3pm, had lunch in Oakland before heading to the airport. After a short hop to LAX, we checked in at Qantas for flight 26 to Auckland, leaving at 11:45pm. We arrived 12 hours, a few meals, and several naps later. Local time in Auckland was 8:30am on Friday. We'd sort of hopped over, or maybe jumped through Thursday. That mysterious lost day will come back to us on our return flight early next month.

After a short hop through driving wind and rain to Wellington, we are greeted by guitarist Gerry Paul, who has booked a month long New Zealand tour for me. Gerry was born in Dublin, but grew up here. I produced his band Grada in August, and he'll play with me and bassist Trevor Hutchison on this tour while Grada takes a break. We drive to his parents cozy home on the hill above the river Hutt, unpack, stretch out, and light a fire in the wood stove. Werner, our soundman for the tour arrives from Cologne later that day, and then we meet Alice and Brendan, Gerry's mom and dad. Gerry produces a lovely meal including an appetizer of curried fresh Abalone, which rhymes with but tastes much better than baloney. We turn in at 11pm and sleep like dead people.

Saturday –Wednesday, October 10-14.

Gerry and I play and interview on a morning radio show with our host, Kim Hill, who's sharp as a tack and who's done her homework on me. We talk about ragtime, bouzoukis, and attempt a definition of bluegrass. After lunch, we head back downtown to Te Papa, the national museum, where we see the only giant squid ever captured alive. It's dead now, but preserved and one of the weirdest animals I've ever seen. We step in the earthquake simulation room, and experience something of what these common New Zealand events feel like. (Wellington sits on top of a major fault line.) On our way into the museum, we'd seen the display showing how the foundation of this building sits on state of the art cushions to absorb the frequent quakes. As we're leaving at 6pm, we get a text from Gerry asking if we felt the earthquake. We thought he meant the simulation, but later found out a 4.6 quake had indeed taken place while we were in the Maori exhibit on the third floor. I guess the rubber and lead cushion did its job. We felt nothing. What about the people in the simulator room? Did the real and the fake shake cancel each other out?

A five-minute walk to a performing arts center, a beer and a snack and then we sat in the balcony to see a stirring performance of traditional Maori song and dance. At one point there were about 100 tattooed performers on stage. The audience was mostly Maori.
New Zealand is the last place on the planet to be populated by humans, and the Maori first came here about 800 years ago. The songs and dances included the fierce Haka, or war dance, as well as greeting songs, and a telling of the Maori's journey from points north so many generations ago. Incredible!

To complete our Kiwi indoctrination, we ate Malaysian food for dinner and then went to club Bodega to see Justin Townes Earle. We're halfway around the world but we can't get away from good old country music.

On Sunday Gerry and I guest on Chris O'Shea's Americana Show on local Wellington radio. (You can hear this fine mix of classic roots music on line, and he has listeners around the world.) Then back to the Paul's house for a gathering of friends around the dinner table. Gerry – who fishes the local bays with a snorkel and spear gun - once again dips into the freezer for some crayfish (lobster to us) and blue moki. It's a feast and it ends up with a family musical with songs passed around the table.

Gerry and I leave the house at 7am Monday for an appearance on national TV. It's the "Good Morning Show" and I mostly hit the high notes on "Workin' On A Building."

Back at the house Kit and I pack our bags and head to the ferry terminal. We'll take the 1pm boat to Picton on the south island. It's a three-hour trip on a beautiful sunny day. The ferry enters Marlborough sound and the wind dies down for the last hour of the trip. After some confusion with the rental car, we head south the Blenheim, then turn west towards the coast. It's a five-hour drive, first up a long, wide river basin, passing winery after winery. There are a few towns on the map between here and Westport, but most of them seem to be made up of a combination pub and general store. We eat whitebait (little transparent minnows) in fritters at the Star Tavern pub in Cape Foulwind, and then find our B&B.

Monday morning we head south along the beautiful coast, visiting a seal colony, and the pancake rocks – amazing limestone rock formations with waves crashing through them. At lunch in Kokatika, we randomly meet a fan, country guitarist Dean Hetherington, who's stopped in for a snack. I'm not playing anywhere around here, and he recognized me from CD cover pictures. He's a nice fellow, born and raised there, and when he's not picking, he carves greenstone (jade) for the tourist trade. Like about 50% of Kiwis, his people come from Ireland. Scotland and Ireland fed so much of early settlement, and that movement continues to this day. Gerry Paul is another – he was born in Ireland but grew up in Wellington. (He now lives in Galway.) His mother was born in Monahan, and his father's parents were from Kerry.

We stop for the night at an inn in Fox Glacier. Rain starts to come down, and we eat sandwiches in our snug room heated by a gas stove. In the morning we head to the glacier viewpoint in pouring rain. Walking through the rain forest we hear the beautiful song of the native bellbird. Then we make a long drive down to Jackson's bay for lunch at the Cray Pot. This is pretty much as far south as you can drive on the west coast, and the wind and rain beat against this little converted motor home. The restrooms are across the road at the campground. We watch for penguins, but they're probably staying inside in the weather. There's a whole lot of wild country south of here, including beautiful fiords.

After lunch it's back in the car and over the pass to Wanaka, where we'll meet up with Gerry, soundman Werner Schuette, and our hostess Sara Churchill. We pass amazing deep and narrow troughs of pouring water, and when we cross the divide and head down the glacial valley, the scene turns to a dry Colorado-like mountain environment. All I can say is, WOW! We continue down the divide, past smooth-as-glass glacial lakes, to the little resort town of Wanaka. It's sort of like a mini Boulder in a place just as spectacular as Telluride.

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by R & T