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Slow Food Rocks Festival

(31 Aug 2008: The Great Meadow at Fort Mason — San Francisco, CA)

It’s a picture perfect Sunday by the Bay in San Francisco as day two of the Slow Food Rocks Festival begins at Fort Mason, a national park area up above the water on the City’s north coast. The previous day had featured an eclectic lineup of Gnarls Barkley, Ozomatli, the New Pornographers, and Medeski Martin and Wood. But day two is clearly the main event in this town. The John Butler Trio and G. Love and Special Sauce will warm things up and then Phil Lesh & Friends will hit the stage for a rare performance of “good ol’ Grateful Dead” music in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge.


The music festival is the just the entertainment aspect of the Slow Food Nation event, which features separately ticketed tasting pavilions for culinary connoisseurs and a “Food for Thought” speaker series. Slow Food Nation, founded in Italy to combat the rise of fast food, seeks to raise awareness about the sustainable food movement and how food is central to pressing global issues involving public health, poverty, social justice, and the environment. With a citizenry known for its appreciation of both culinary delights and social consciousness, San Francisco does indeed seem like the ideal location for such an event. The Friday morning session on the global food crisis at the Herbst Theater draws such demand that even certain interested journalists can’t gain entry.


Things kick off early on Sunday with the John Butler Trio hitting the stage at high noon for an energetic set that gets things off to a rocking start. Butler dazzles on slide guitar and soulful vocals in a manner not unlike Ben Harper. The Australian native has slowly but surely built a steady following over the past decade and the crowd is into the band’s bluesy, up-tempo vibe. With the sun shining, breeze blowing, and tunes flowing, the second day of the festival is off to a hot start.


As one might expect, the food and beverages available at the festival are a cut above the norm. Yet there’s an ironic scarcity of informational booths regarding the social issues and mission of Slow Food Nation. The Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park two weeks prior had lots of booths from environmental non-profits, but little chance to visit them with no time between artists’ sets on six stages. Here it’s the opposite problem—there’s only one stage and half-hour breaks between sets, but hardly any booths to visit. The only cause to be found is “Take Back the Tap,” a campaign from Food & Water Watch to inform the public on how tap water is actually more likely to be ensured for purity than bottled water.


G. Love and Special Sauce come out next and deliver a laid back yet up-beat set of blues infused, hip-hop flavored tunes that keep the crowd grooving with good vibes that match the sunshine filled day. At one point, G. Love dedicates the next song “to everyone that likes to weed the garden,” and sends the tune out “to my brother Phil Lesh.” A fat bass line and funky organ part bring the energy up as G. Love sings “Who’s got the weed… legalize it, don’t criticize it.”


This provides an interesting juxtaposition to event information stating that since the festival is taking place on federal land, federal laws will be applicable. Similar warnings were given when Lesh’s Telstar trio played the Yuri’s Night Out festival at the NASA Ames facility in Mountain View, California, this past spring. Some witnessed two fans being handcuffed by federal NASA cops for smoking a joint as Lesh’s band was tuning up that night, leading to a wary vibe by fans here at Fort Mason. There doesn’t seem to be much of a police presence, but reports do come in later during the afternoon about similar hassles. 


G. Love doesn’t seem to be aware of these issues as he merrily sings the leaf’s praises. He then turns his sights to some appropriately food-based material with “Hot Cooking”, where he also tears it up on slide guitar. The super funky “Cold Beverage”, which makes it clear that the organizers brought in the right act, follows this, and the band wraps up their set with an anthemic plea for “Peace, Love and Happiness”.


An announcer declares “We’ll be back in 30 minutes with the main course,” as the crowd swells for the Phil Lesh and Friends headlining performance. An informal poll of gray-haired Deadheads fails to find anyone who can recall ever seeing Lesh or the Dead play in view of the Golden Gate Bridge, so a special vibe seems to be in the air. There’s also word going around that this will be guitarist/vocalist Jackie Greene’s last Bay Area appearance with the band, as his contract is rumored to expire at the end of the band’s fall tour.


Regular lead guitarist Larry Campbell is absent with other commitments, so Ratdog guitarist Mark Karan joins Green on guitars as the band comes out and opens with a rousing “Playing in the Band”. Perennial crowd pleaser “Bertha” follows, along with a parade of costumed freaks and kids who start at the soundboard and wind their way up front as the band jams on. Karan delivers a sweet guitar solo, only for Greene to wail one of his own afterward. Greene is known as more of a rhythm guitarist and singer/songwriter, but its clear that spending the past year playing with Lesh and Campbell has inspired him to work on his skills.


“China Cat Sunflower” is the tune that kicks the set into high gear and really brings the crowd alive. The classic groove has the whole crowd dancing and with the sun shining and Golden Gate Bridge off to the right, it seems like a little slice of rock ‘n’ roll heaven. Greene wails on lead guitar again, clearly out to make this a performance to remember if it will be his last time by Lesh’s side in San Francisco. The band then segues into “I Know You Rider”, continuing to bring the heat as the crowd dances on.


Karan takes the lead vocal on “Sugaree”, which leads into another extended jam. There’s no set break today, so the band just continues full-steam ahead into “Uncle John’s Band”, where Lesh leads the band into a monster jam that recalls the tune’s heyday from extended workouts in the early ‘70s. The energy swings and builds until Lesh steers the group on a deliciously tight change into the epic “Help on the Way”, as the energy explodes. The “Slipknot” transition follows as the band rolls right into “Franklin’s Tower”, for yet another huge feel good groove.


The show easily could have ended triumphantly right here, but the band outdoes itself by throwing down a raucous “Sugar Magnolia”, with Greene belting out the lyrics for all he’s worth on the “Sunshine Daydream” outro. Another sweet jam features superb ensemble playing from everyone as the two-hour set comes to a big conclusion. A perfect “Box of Rain” encore fits the summery mood just right as the ecstatic crowd enjoys Lesh’s classic vocal on the heartwarming tune.


Slow Food Nation has thrown a heck of a party here in one of San Francisco’s most beautiful and underutilized parks, but it’s too bad that the tasting pavilions and music had to be separated, and that more information about the Slow Food movement wasn’t made available at the festival. One wonders how many attendees are aware that humanity possesses the resources to feed everyone on the planet, yet nearly 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes every day because it’s not profitable to those who control the resources to spread the food wealth? That really is food for thought.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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