Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: The wonderful sounds of autumn return to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass / One of the premiere music festivals
in the country -- and it's free, too!

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 over the past 15 years has become an annual highlight of our San Francisco cultural calendar.

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

There's no place better to be in San Francisco on a gorgeous, 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.

Larger than life / Likeness of Warren Hellman
looks out over the Banjo Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
In 2012, one of the meadows used for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor Hellman's memory. On the Banjo Stage at Hellman Hollow, a giant likeness of Hellman's smiling face is included on the stage's backdrop scrim-curtain.

Last weekend, the 15th edition of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returned to the western half of Golden Gate Park spread out over seven stages with its usual eclectic mix of talent -- over 100 live acts -- including Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Ry Cooder, Boz Scaggs, Joe Jackson, T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Neko Case, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Steve Earle and perennial closer Emmylou Harris.

Americana singer Lera Lynn / Her music has been
featured in the HBO series "True Detective".
For the estimated three-quarters of a million of music lovers who were expected to descend upon the Park over the festival's three days, filling the lawns, crowding into the hills and even dotting a few treetops, HSB 15 offered a little something for everyone's music palette: traditional bluegrass (Cinch Mountain Boys), progressive bluegrass (Punch Brothers), country (LeeAnn Womack), folk (Laura Marling), Americana (Felice Brothers), and roots rock (Steve Earle). Add to the mix some English pop and soul (Joe Jackson and Paul Weller), American Chicano rock (Los Lobos) and Celtic rock (Flogging Molly) and it all added up to a treasure trove of great music riches at this year's festival.

My wife and I ventured out from our East Bay home across the Bay via BART and rode the N Judah Muni Metro train out to 19th Avenue and walked a mile or so to the Park for the first two days of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass -- and we were thrilled by what we heard. On Friday, we arrived early afternoon in time to camp out on the Marx Meadow grounds in front of the Rooster Stage to enjoy the pleasing sounds of the Felice Brothers and Laura Marling.

Chris Thile of Punch Brothers / Spirited and spontaneous.
Then, we sprinted across the grounds to catch the exciting Punch Brothers, led by the very spirited mandolinist Chris Thile, who lit up the Banjo Stage with their progressive bluegrass sound. How best to describe them? I'll defer to The Times of London, which once described the Punch Brothers' sound as "bluegrass instrumentation and spontaneity in the strictures of modern classical" as well as "American country-classical chamber music." Included in their set list was "Passepied" by classical composer Claude Debussy, which was warmly received by the overflow crowd, and they closed with a medley of "Magnet/Alone, Together" by the Strokes.

I later learned that there's a wonderful story behind the band's name. It comes from a critical line of an earworm jingle in the Mark Twain short story "A Literary Nightmare." In it, the chorus of the jingle consists of two lines, "Punch, brother, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenjare," that are said to be the mantra of railroad conductors.

An American rocker / T Bone Burnett sang protect songs.
Finally, we arrived at the Swan Stage in Lindley Meadow by late afternoon to catch the beginning of a tremendous set of Dylanesque "protest" rock by the innovative American songwriter-producer T Bone Burnett. He was a guitarist in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue band of the 1970s and later went on to unparalleled acclaim for his work with artists like Elvis Costello and for producing the Grammy Award-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Soon, the sun faded out over the nearby Pacific Ocean, and it was time to return home.

On Saturday, we eagerly returned and camped out on the far end of Lindley Meadow at the Towers of Gold Stage, the western-most stage on the festival grounds for much of the afternoon, listening to Lera Lynn, whose work has been featured on HBO's True Detective crime drama series while awaiting for Joe Jackson and Boz Scaggs to take the stage. Toting a picnic basket full of food and beverages, we unfurled a large beach towel on the Lindley Meadow grounds and soaked up some sunshine and good sounds.

Fast forward / Joe Jackson still steppin' out in song.
"Thank you music lovers," Jackson said early during his set of rich and rewarding old faves ("It's Different For Girls", "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and "Sunday Papers") and new songs ("If It Wasn't For You" and "Ode To Joy") from his first new studio album in seven years, "Fast Forward," which was released a day before his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass appearance.

"We're soldiering on. We learned 40 songs for this tour. If I f*ck up the words, blame the sun!" the ever-restless Jackson joked.

In his defense, Jackson was blinded by the bright sun, despite wearing shades, and his ability to rely upon an iPad that contained song lyrics propped up on his grand piano was all but stymied. Still, the dapper Jackson remained a good sport through it all, and his 50-minute, 10-song set was much enjoyed and appreciated by all.

Boz Scaggs / Having a lot of fun with music, more than ever.
Later, it was time to enjoy the legendary guitarist and vocalist Boz Scaggs, whose hour-long set showed a willingness to wander in several musical directions, including rock, jazz, soul and tango. As Scaggs closed with his mega-hit "Lido Shuffle," the sun began to fade just a bit on what was a lovely afternoon of music that passed much too quickly.

On our way out of the festival, we paused for a few minutes on the periphery of the Banjo Stage grounds to catch a few songs by iconic roots rockers Steve Earle & the Dukes.

As much as we would have liked coming back for a third day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on Sunday, we were both musically and physically spent. But it felt good. Instead, from the comforts of home, we caught portions of sets by Neko Case, Los Lobos and DeVotchKa via the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass live stream to whet our music appetite.

Paul Weller / His ever-changing moods.
Year after year, the HSB festival organizers out-do themselves and make it one of the most outstanding -- and uniquely satisfying -- music festivals in the country. It keeps getting bigger and better without becoming commercial.

We look forward to returning next year and doing it all over again.

To see a complete list of artists who performed at the 2015 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as well as to link to the webcast archive of selected performances:

All photographs © Michael Dickens, 2015.

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