Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Sounds of autumn: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass / The sounds of autumn returned to
Golden Gate Park  -- and so did the crowds to hear these sounds.

The first weekend in October had been marked "HSB" on my Google calendar for quite some time -- and, while it had nothing to do with baseball or sport, it had everything to do with music and fun.

You see, the first weekend of October holds a special significance for my wife and me because it's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass weekend. What has become one of the premier music festivals in the country has become an annual highlight of our San Francisco cultural calendar.

Oh, by the way, did I mention Hardly Strictly is free, too?

First Aid Kit / Their lovely and soothing rendition of
Simon and Garfunkel's "America" Friday on the Rooster Stage
was one of the many highlights of this year's festival.

There's no place better to be in San Francisco on a gorgeously beautiful, autumn weekend than in Golden Gate Park at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the late Warren Hellman's gift to The City. Although the Bay Area billionaire investment banker and benefactor -- himself a spirited banjo player and a lover of bluegrass music -- died in 2011, he left an endowment to ensure its existence for many years to come. (There are no corporate sponsors.) At last year's festival, the first following Hellman's death, one of the meadows used for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor his memory.

Boston-based group Della Mae
offered a fresh and contemporary
spin to bluegrass. 
Last weekend, the congenial Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival returned for a 13th edition with its usual eclectic lineup of talent, including: Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Isaak, Nick Lowe, Los Lobos, First Aid Kit, Richard Thompson and Steve Martin with Edie Brickell, to name just a few of the more than 80 acts, who performed during the festival's three days, spread out over six different stages across the western half of Golden Gate Park. Perennials like Steve Earle and Buddy Miller were there. And, there were a lot of Wainwright's, too -- Loudon III, Martha and Sloan, but, alas, no Rufus.

Nick Lowe / The silver-haired
and tender-hearted songwriter
was wonderful company on a
sunny afternoon.
For the hundreds of thousands who poured into the Park, filling the lawns, crowding into the hills and even dotting a few treetops (festival organizers estimated the weekend crowd to be 900,000, including over 400,000 on Sunday), there was a little something for everyone to celebrate: traditional bluegrass (Ralph Stanley and the Cinch Mountain Boys), contemporary bluegrass (Della Mae), country (Vince Gill with The Time Jumpers), rockabilly (Chris Isaak), soul (Bettye LaVette), folk (First Aid Kit), Americana (Della Mae), revivalist roots (the Felice Brothers), contemporary rock (Mark Lanegan) and roots rock (Steve Earle).

As I explained to a friend of mine Monday on Facebook, there was an embarrassment of great music riches at this year's festival. My brother in Louisiana texted me that he was "green with envy" and wished he could be at Hardly Strictly. There were so many quality choices each day filling the six stages between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.; sadly, it was impossible to see all of them.

Friday's Rooster Stage line-up.
On Friday, my wife and I arrived mid-afternoon in time to see Washington, D.C. indie-rock duo The Evens followed by the Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit on the Rooster Stage.

The Söderberg sisters, Johanna and Klara, gave a lovely, soothing rendition of the Simon and Garfunkel hit "America" that caught everyone's attention and was a highlight for us.

Later, we sprinted across the meadow and landed at the Arrow Stage in time to enjoy the desert noir sound of Calexico, whose musical style has been influenced by mariachi, conjunto, cumbia and Tejano as well as a mixture of mid-20th century jazz and turn-of-the-21st century rock.

Desert noir / Calexico's music is influenced by a variety of Mexican
sounds combined with a mixture of period jazz and rock.

On our way out, we paused at the Banjo Stage and caught a couple of tunes by Bonnie Raitt, whose set mixed old favorites like "Something to Talk About" with new songs from her nineteenth album Slipstream. Unfortunately, her set conflicted with Calexico, and since we had seen Raitt before, we opted for Calexico, which had been high on our list of must-see bands at this year's festival.

Bettye LaVette bared her soul
to an appreciative audience
 on the Towers of Gold Stage.
On Saturday, we eagerly returned to the festival site and camped out all afternoon at the Towers of Gold Stage, the western-most stage on the festival grounds. Toting a picnic basket full of food and beverages, we spread out a large beach towel on the Lindley Meadow lawn and soaked up some welcome San Francisco sunshine while enjoying the assortment of sets offered by Bettye LaVette (soul), Nick Lowe (witty and elegant acoustic British pop and rock) and Los Lobos (American Chicano rock). In between, music from Dave Alvin (Americana) and Boz Scaggs (blue-eyed soul) was piped in from their adjoining Star Stage sets to fill the gaps.

What's Going On / Boz Scaggs (second from left) sat in
with Los Lobos on the Marvin Gaye classic "What's Going On"
Saturday afternoon on the Towers of Gold Stage.

A wonderful treat during Los Lobos' "disconnected" set was seeing Boz Scaggs sit in with the East L.A. band on the Marvin Gaye classic "What's Going On." By the time the sun began to fade on a lovely afternoon that passed much too quickly, it all added up to a memorable experience.

On Hardly Strictly's third and final day Sunday, we braved the masses who filled the Park to see and hear Steve Martin and Edie Brickell with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Their new album Love Has Come For You, featuring Martin's inventive five-string banjo playing with Brickell's detail-rich lyrics and distinctive voice, has garnered rave reviews and it was the must-see moment of the weekend.

Because we knew the Banjo Stage at Hellman Hollow would be the place everyone wanted to be between during the early-afternoon hours, we arrived more than an hour before the 1:25 p.m. start of Martin and Brickell's set, found a small postage-stamp sized bit of green grass to put down our beach towel and picnic basket, and were treated to a nice, traditional bluegrass set by Laurie Lewis and Friends that whetted our appetite for more.

Inventive, distinctive and entertaining, too /
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell with the Steep Canyon Rangers
 presented a hybrid of bluegrass and comedy that delighted
 one of the weekend's biggest gatherings at this year's festival.

After Martin and Brickell's amazing and entertaining one-hour set -- you knew Martin would add a bit of comedy banter in between songs -- we darted across the festival grounds and landed on the Star Stage in Lindley Meadow, where we kicked back and relaxed, listening appreciatively to Chris Isaak perform "Wicked Game" among his parade of rock and rockabilly hits before calling it an afternoon. As much as we would have liked to stay on for either the traditional, early-evening farewell set by Emmylou Harris or sample the gypsy rhythms of Gogol Bordello, we were both physically and musically spent. Attending Hardly Strictly for three days straight will do that, but it felt good.

This year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was, indeed, a Lucky 13th -- it added up to another satisfying festival experience that I know we'll talk about for a long time to come -- and we look forward to returning next year to do it all over again.

To see a complete list of artists who performed at this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as well as to link to the webcast archive of selected performances:

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013.


  1. thanks for sharing Michael...reading your essay seems like I was there ... I will mark SBF in my To Do List for next year ... one thing I have not seen yet in this City. Cora

  2. You are very welcome, Cora. Hardly Strictly is a wonderful cultural event and there's a little something for every music taste. And, it's a great setting, too.