SAN FRANCISCO — Erika Wennerstrom misses my calls because she frequents truck stops. Her longtime friend and Heartless Bastards bassist Mike Lamping might have to remind her to put the beef jerky down and answer her cell.
She says she can't think straight because she's hung over, can't quite hear the questions because the wind whips her blonde locks all over the place. She tries anyway, musing about a life of music from a van rumbling down the freeway, somewhere between Oxford, Miss., and New Orleans. Amidst the swampy lowlands and the inflections in her voice, you can almost see her eyes and hair flashing with wild abandon, laughing easily and openly at all of life's little absurdities.
Absurdities like a dastardly pedal malfunction only four songs into their set here at seventh annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival earlier this month. The entire festival drew about 100,000 people and featured 71 performances. Notables included Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Los Lobos, Emmylou Harris and Earl Scruggs. Other up-and-comers seethed from the side steps: Hot Buttered Rum, the Mother Hips, Poor Man's Whiskey, just to name a few.
The Heartless Bastards held it down on the fabled Star stage.
After a long, curling walk down the main avenue of Golden Gate Park, where the free festival is held, after watching trams carrying elderly fans the rest of the way or marveling at the grand paths cutting straight to the sea, you can start to hear the rumble.
At first it's just a few speakers playing Salsa music, spraying sound on a modest gathering of couples dancing together in the open air. Keep walking. Up ahead looms the Porch stage, where the festival's benefactor, Warren Hellmann, better known as the Mayonnaise Master, lets all his friends get their rocks off, bustin' a banjo move in front of a crowd. Still walking.
The Banjo stage and the Arrow stage face off as the largest stages in the entire park, built atop opposing crests in the earth, allowing ginormous pools of people to sway in their depths. What clever planners these San Franciscans are.
Finally the Star stage comes into view. Maybe it's because it's closer to the Pacific Ocean, but the skies seem bluer here. Erika, Mike and Bastard drummer Kevin Vaughn stand tall, checking a little sound, giving the hippies a taste. Erika's Southern drawl echoes hauntingly from the microphone, giving credence to Kentucky and Bluegrass alike — "Hey, hey, check, two, check."
A hefty crowd begins to trickle down from the streets and woods beyond. Once the announcer tells the audience who's next, everyone stands up and starts cheering. The Bastards open with "The Will Song." Erika's voice reverberates off the deciduous branches that shroud us from the Franciscan sun, piercing through the rays with breathtaking sonic scope. By the third song, the crowd has tripled.
Free-spirited women dance and spiral their arms, stabbing the air in erratic circles. People start to look up, start to wonder what exactly they're listening to. They inch closer and closer to the stage, hesitant at first, perplexed glances giving way to shock on their faces — how can such a powerful sound come from such a small person? The euphoric discovery gives way to a snarling crackle bellowing from Erika's amp. The problem persists throughout the set, but the Bastards barrel ahead anyway.
At one point, Erika is visibly shaken. Someone screams, "It's OK," between songs. Another person yells, "Give it the old Midwestern try."
Weeks earlier, as the band traversed the country on their most recent tour, Erika talked about experiencing adversity training proper, about the transition between the recording of the Bastards' debut Stairs and Elevators and their sophomore effort, All This Time.
Before signing with Fat Possum Records, Erika admits to never hitting the road for more than a week at a time. After the debut started receiving rave reviews and lengthy stretches of road began to peer out from the corners of the future, the trio found themselves having to re-adjust to the lonely, grueling and yet incredibly sought-after life of the traveling musician.
The albums provide a vivid backdrop marked by the evolution of change; they are channeled through some of the purest acts of human expression, demonstrated by Erika's ability to send her vocal chords straight into your soul. At first the Bastards played and sang about climbing, about getting somewhere. After signing to a label and beginning to tour the country heavily, subjects shifted. Now they seem to be re-examining their chosen path.
For now they're trying to be the best musical ambassadors they possibly can be. Old friends greet them after the festival set. People who've been displaced but still need that Cincy fix — a dose of down-to-earth, of people who know how to keep it really, really real — quickly gather around to catch up and talk.
When asked about things coming into focus, specifically the song "Into the Open," Erika says it's all about being truly comfortable in your own skin.
"You know sometimes when you go through changes in your life ... you change yourself," she says. "Maybe it's about getting a bit older, about figuring out who I am."
She laughs again. Somewhere in the van I hear Mike saying that it's all about being "post-futuristic."
"When you take chances and you try something new, some things work and some don't," Erika says. "It's just people moving forward. You just don't know 'til you try."
SARA YASTE currently lives and works in San Francisco. Look for future installments of the RustBelt Revue (stories about Cincy-area artists in the Bay Area) soon.