At first, we miss Bolinas entirely. Drive right by it, oblivious. Twenty minutes later, up a perilously winding road pointing in the wrong direction, we stop at a gas station, wherein the bemused attendant informs us that our disorientation is very much by design.
Old burned-out hippies — not teenage pranksters — probably snuck around and tore down the street signs themselves. Bolinas cares not for nosy outsiders. The epic bar brawl that nearly erupts in the town’s official watering hole several hours later might explain why.
We have gathered at Smiley’s Saloon, a tiny bar and minihotel with a square footage no larger than your average Taco Bell. It’s Friday, opening night of the two-day Quiet Quiet Window Lights festival, a rustic hoedown engineered by the narcotizing trio Brightblack. The place is loaded with SF and Oakland kids who have braved the ninety-minute, drive north for some transcendent freak-folk goodness.
The Bobo regulars who braved the ninety-second, bone-chilling stroll to Smiley’s to imbibe some transcendent alcoholic goodness have no idea what the hell is going on. “Where are you from?” one guy demands, reasonably, surveying his suddenly overloaded local bar.
“You drove from Oakland to here? On a Friday night?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Onstage is Peggy Honeywell, who probably doesn’t clear five feet. She politely strums a similarly diminutive banjo, and is dressed, adorably, like a Little House on the Prairie extra. Angels want to wear her red shoes. “Her hat looks like a delicious biscuit,” my nearby friend remarks hungrily.
Peggy is singing lovely, plaintive tunes about birds, open skies, puppy love. She is also nearly inaudible, as the locals are chugging brew-dogs and shouting good-natured threats at each other.
Brightblack frontman Nathan Shineywater, perched near Smiley’s soundman, finally seizes a nearby mic, points out that Peggy is a medicine woman, and thus certainly deserves our undivided attention. Therefore, all yakkers are advised to — and I do quote — “shut the fuck up.”
Peggy’s face immediately registers terror and alarm. She tightens the grip on her banjo.
“No, you shut the fuck up,” enjoins a local.
“It’s not your town,” adds another.
“It’s not your town either,” Nathan retorts. “Your people raped the red man, you Anglo-Saxon son of a bitch.” He offhandedly mention a knife he owns, and is proficient in using.
And with that, given that the “Beat It” video is about to break out, everyone in the bar unconsciously switches to Battle Mode.
Including Peggy. “I’m just trying to play my songs as fast as I can,” she notes with hesitation. This is without question the funniest stage banter anyone anywhere will generate in 2005.
Nathan and the Lead Heckler — who makes a point of openly questioning Nathan’s sexuality — convene at the back of the bar. That they do not come to blows is a minor miracle, credited to a few Samaritans who separate and placate them. Common ground is then forged: The Warriors are losing (!!???!!!) to the Lakers on the TV above the bar. Half-court strategies are avidly discussed.
Peggy plucks on.
The tension between Bolinas and the metro Bay Area — and, by proxy, between those living the freak-folk lifestyle and those who merely idolize it — is central to the appeal of Quiet Quiet Window Lights, a now-annual institution. Separating townies from tourists proves more difficult than you might imagine. “Beards are the new trucker hats,” notes my biscuit-lusting friend. And indeed, 85 percent of Bolinas’ male residents this weekend appear to have recently entered an Abe Lincoln Look-Alike Contest.
Devendra Banhart would not win such a contest. He does, however, salvage Friday night’s musical proceedings. While Peggy was endearing, the French posse Women and Children follows with shambling, Nico-aping hokiness. The frontwoman immediately requests more reverb, and after one shambolic tune I, for one, am prepared to provide her with all the reverb she can possibly stand.
But oh, Devendra. Banhart is the king to harp virtuoso Joanna Newsom’s queen in the freak-folk canon, perhaps the genre’s most mediagenic star, even if this involves acting functionally psychotic during interviews. But onstage at Smiley’s he is mesmerizing, his Spanish as evocative as his English, his falsetto trilling infectious enough that the hometown Bobo boys start imitating it, less insult than homage. He covers Canned Heat and makes it sound like Bach. He covers Charles Manson and makes it sound like Jeff Buckley. He entreats us to have sex, kill our lover immediately before climaxing, and drink her blood. We laugh, smitten.
Michael Hurley — folk long before folk was cool — follows with a set featuring too much folk, not enough cool. “He seems to have written a song for every car he has ever owned,” my biscuit-lusting, beard-coveting friend notes. I like the one about the ’54 Chevy.
We rise the next morn, wander around glorious Bolinas Beach, wind through the hills of Muir Woods, wrassle with all-you-can-eat crab, and convene Saturday evening at the Bolinas Community Center, where we all sit quietly crosslegged on the hardwood floor as Vetiver overloads the stage with bongo-banging and guitar-strumming and harp-fluttering guest musicians, a band channeling the Band.
Bill Higgs twangs on his mouth harp.
Brightblack plays its slug-slow backporch balladry, consciousness-expanding yet barely conscious. You can see this band five times without realizing it has a drummer. But tonight that drummer goes nuts, goosing a slow jam with furious Bonham bonhomie. We approve.
Joanna Newsom does her thing, which I’ve given up trying to describe.
The gorgeously harmonizing ladies of coffeehouse-pop duo Willow Willow serve beer in the back. Alas, they shoulda played.
Instead, the evening ends with Entrance, another bearded dude playing a raucous but tremendously loud electric guitar. The Quiet Quiet spell is broken, and we wander off into the Bolinas night. In the morning we rise, drive home, watch playoff football.
We will never “live” folk, but at least we are free to enjoy it.