Tuesday, October 9, 2012

No place better to be on a Sunday afternoon than at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Glen Hansard performing on the Rooster Stage Sunday afternoon
at the 2012 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in
San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival returned to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park last weekend with its usual stellar lineup of talent: Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Steve Earle, Patti Smith, Buddy Miller, the Civil Wars, Glen Hansard and the Del McCoury Band, to name just a few of the 88 acts who played over three days. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has become one of the premier music festivals in the country.

There was no place in The City better to be on this beautiful, autumn Sunday afternoon.

This year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival held special meaning to the hundreds of thousands who attended the 12th annual free festival spread out over six different stages across the western half of Golden Gate Park. There was a little something for everyone to celebrate: bluegrass, country, rockabilly, blues, folk, pop, rock and jazz. As San Francisco Chronicle senior pop music critic Joel Selvin wrote, there was "a broad range of acts that somehow manage to coalesce into a music identity that is uniquely HSB."

Glen Hansard
It was the first festival since the passing of founder Warren Hellman, 77, the Bay Area billionaire investment banker and benefactor ~ himself a spirited amateur banjo player ~ who funded HSB as a gift to the city of San Francisco and left an endowment to ensure of its existence for many years to come. The Speedway Meadow, site of the Banjo Stage where Costello, Stanley and Harris played to tremendous crowds, was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor Hellman's memory.

On Saturday, there was a special tribute to the festival's "founding fathers" ~ Hellman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson ~ all passed away since last year's HSB. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band played a New Orleans funeral on the Banjo Stage to open the tribute. By late Sunday afternoon, Harris closed the festival as she has every year since its beginning in 2001.

I would have loved being at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for all three days of this year's festival. However, prior commitments to see the University of California women's volleyball match in Berkeley on Friday and the San Francisco Giants NLDS playoff game against Cincinnati across town at AT&T Park on Saturday limited me to just attending Sunday afternoon.

Nick Lowe
Still, my afternoon at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was worthwhile and the nice weather and setting provided the right ambiance to enjoy a picnic lunch with my wife. We enjoyed a few hours of great music on the grounds of the Rooster Stage in Marx Meadow with several thousand like-minded enthusiasts, who like us were sprawled out on the grassy meadow with their blankets and picnic baskets.

First, we saw the Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard perform several tunes from his 2012 album "Rhythm and Repose." Best known for his work with Swell Season and the Frames, Hansard's hour-long set included "Love Don't Leave Me Waiting" from "Rhythm and Repose" and he finished with an inspiring version of The Band's "Don't Do it" in tribute to the late Levon Helm, who was that group's inspirational leader.

Then, after a short recess, next up was the British singer/songwriter Nick Lowe, whose graceful and lyrical crooning style is steeped in classic American pop and blues. Once labeled "the Jesus of Cool" for his pioneering pub-rock style of the 1970s and '80s, today Lowe's style has been described as "boutique pop" with "far gentler textures." Lowe's solo set ~ just him and his acoustic guitar ~ included songs from his current album "The Old Magic" as well as many of his earlier hits, notably "Cruel to be Kind."

Close-knit circle and dapperly attired / The Del McCoury Band
performing late Sunday afternoon on the Star Stage
at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

Afterward, as we reached the Star Stage on our way towards the western edge to exit the festival grounds, we paused for a few minutes to listen to and appreciate the dapperly dressed Del McCoury Band as they performed traditional bluegrass music. On stage in close-knit semicircle, there were bluegrass fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins ~ and so much more. There were voices, too. It was sweet, heavenly music to our ears.

Indeed, we had come to the right place on this beautiful, autumn Sunday afternoon.

Photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

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