ardly Strictly Bluegrass festival benefactor Warren Hellman welcomed Steve Earle to the Banjo stage in Golden Gate Park by appointing him the de-facto "Minister of Defense in Charge of Annoying the Blue Angels."
Indeed, at last year's show, Earle defiantly raised a middle finger to the Navy pilots at each sonic boom flyover. Fleet Week was on again in San Francisco this year but the low flying jets were absent from the skies after 6 p.m. - and instead Earle brought his own new sonic sounds to the stage.
Appearing without the Bluegrass Dukes, and with a new CD to promote, Earle began with just a guitar and a harmonica, picking and strumming a handful of tunes from his extensive catalog, including heartfelt versions of "Now She's Gone," "Goodbye" and a plaintive "Billy Austin."
After being joined onstage by wife Allison Moorer for a sweetly harmonized "Days Aren't Long Enough" from the just released "Washington Square Serenade," Earle launched into a set of new songs, backed by a DJ looping rhythm and vocal tracks.
Listeners unfamiliar with the new CD seemed momentarily puzzled by the distinct hop-hop twist to Earle's music - but then, this is a festival audience that earlier heard Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby cover Rick James' "Super Freak," and when fronted by Earle's expert banjo, guitar and electric mandolin picking, there was no doubt that this music was perfectly at home at a festival that bills itself as "Hardly" Strictly Bluegrass.
The crowd was up and dancing to the country-Latin beat of "City of Immigrants," the anthemic trip-hop "Satellite Radio," the hard rocking "Oxycontin Blues" and the juiced-up Tom Waits cover "Way Down in the Hole." Earle blasted through the new songs with an infectious energy, introducing bluegrass fans to a new musical genre: Americana-bluegrass-hop?
Not forgetting that every Steve Earle show is part political rally, an encore of the anti-war ballad "Rich Man's War" followed a brief appearance by Earle's friend, peace activist and Independent congressional candidate Cindy Sheehan. Closing the festival for the night, Earle left the stage, guitar raised in salute to the audience.
Folk singer, balladeer, political songwriter, and mandolin-playing hip-hopper...on this eclectic night in Golden Gate Park, Steve Earle made it clear that he's not done reinventing himself and his music, and satisfying his fans.