Wavy Gravy donned his trademark clown nose and sat in the front row as his friends Steve Earle, Rickie Lee Jones, Peter Rowan and John Craigie got together for a guitar (and mandolin) pull to benefit Camp Winnarainbow.
The musicians were all were in town for separate appearances at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and donated their time to help Gravy’s California camp.
The round-robin performance is “an efficient way for a concert to raise funds … you get a lot of us for your buck,” host Earle told the crowd assembled Sept. 28 for Toward the FUN(ds) at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre.
This informal setting was an opportunity to hear Jones fumble through an untitled work-in-progress – “it’s like a lesson – a bad one,” she deadpanned mid-song – while earning the loudest applause of the evening for “Weasel and the White Boys Cool.”
“That usually happens to me when I host these things,” Earle said.
Jones would later wow the crowd by turning a false start of “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” into a singalong “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”
For his part, the host Earle dedicated “Jerusalem” to Gravy, played mandolin on “Copperhead Road” and duetted with Rowan on “Train a Comin’.”
The incongruous foursome also found the 43-year-old California native Craigie – who was hysterical when talking about needing, and eventually quitting, oxygen when playing gigs at altitude – swapping licks with the 81-year-old Rowan, who played mandolin and guitar, sang high notes like a man half his age and slipped Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” inside his own “Panama Red.”
“Now my roots are really showing,” the once Old & in the Way and former Bluegrass Boy Rowan said upon playing the first notes of “Freight Train.”
Cragie’s songs, like his banter, can also be funny (as on “I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Laurie Rolled Me a J”) before he slips into wistful homesickness on “I am California.” He punctuates both sides of his songwriting with mournful bleats on harmonica.
Unannounced guest John Popper, whose daughter attends Winnarainbow, appeared to perform John Lennon’s “Imagine” with Craigie on guitar and participate in the all-hands-on-deck closer, “Rivers of Babylon,” to round out the 90-minute good time for a good cause.