Friday, October 14, 2016

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 16: The sounds of autumn

Gathering at the Banjo Stage for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Each year, as my wife and I map out our cultural calendar, we reserve the first weekend of October for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. There's no better place to be than in the natural beauty of Golden Gate Park for this annual admission-free festival, which has become one the country's premiere music events.

Somehow, the autumn weather at the beginning of October always seems to be just right for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the late Warren Hellman's music 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. In 2012, one of the meadows was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder's memory.

Valerie June performed on the Banjo Stage
at the 16th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
As the 16th edition of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returned from Sept. 30-Oct. 2, spread out over seven stages with its usual eclectic mix of talent, there were over 100 live acts – including Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Boz Scaggs, Cake, Buddy Miller, Conor Oberst, T Bone Burnett, Kris Kristopherson, the Dropkick Murphys, Roseanne Cash, M. Ward, John Doe, KT Tunstall, Steve Earle and the Dukes, and perennial closer Emmylou Harris – which delighted the hundreds of thousands of music revelers who packed into the western half of Golden Gate Park over the festival's three days. The fans filled the meadow lawns, crowded onto the park's hills, and a few adventurous types could be seen dotting treetops, too There was a little something for everyone's music palette: traditional bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, country, folk, surf rock, Americana and roots rock. Plus, there was pop and soul, and even Celtic rock. It all added up to a delightful treasure trove of great music riches.

Steve Earle
This year, my wife and I welcomed to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass our longtime friends from Seattle, whom we had shared many Bumbershoot music and art festivals together in the Emerald City over the past 20 years. On Friday, we arrived at the festival site just past noon and camped out in Hellman Hollow about a hundred yards back from the Banjo Stage, where we enjoyed a soulful bluesy set by Americana singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Valerie June from Memphis, Tenn.

Shawn Colvin
Then, we walked a few hundred yards west arriving at the Arrow Stage to catch Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, who played a spirited set of mostly acoustic chestnuts, including the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie," "Ruby Tuesday," by the Rolling Stones and a beautiful and melodic duet of "You Were On My Mind" by the We Five. Colvin and Earle's vocal harmonies were spot on and delightful.

The Rebirth Brass Band
We stayed at the Arrow Stage where we were met with the lively arrival of the Rebirth Brass Band, known for combining traditional New Orleans brass band music – including the New Orleans tradition of second line – along with funk, soul and hip hop.

Mavis Staples
Finally, we returned to the Banjo Stage for an outstanding set of old favorites and recent solo recordings by the raw and rasping voice of an American original, Mavis Staples, which closed out our first day. Staples called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass "my favorite, favorite festival." By the conclusion of the gregarious Chicago singer's set, culminated by "I'll Take You There," the sun had faded out over the nearby Pacific Ocean, and it was time to return home.

Vince Gill with The Time Jumpers
On Saturday, we eagerly returned and camped out at the Banjo Stage for much of the afternoon, soaking up some sunshine and good sounds provided by Laurie Lewis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers, and the Dave Rawlings Machine, featuring Rawlings and his longtime musical partner Gillian Welch, playing bluegrass classics and originals. Throughout the afternoon, the Banjo Stage featured lots of fiddles, banjos and mandolins.

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch
On our way out of the festival, we paused for a few minutes at the very packed Rooster Stage in Marx Meadow to catch the beginning of Jackson Browne's late-afternoon set, just one of many unforgettable moments of our weekend. Then, we ventured further west along the festival's main boulevard to catch the end of Glen Hansard's set on the Tower of Gold Stage and, finally, the start of Chris Isaak's show with his band Silvertone on the Swan Stage.

As Hardly Strictly Bluegrass turned 16 this year, once again, the HSB festival organizers out-did themselves to make it one of the most outstanding – and uniquely satisfying – music festivals in the country. Somehow, it keeps getting bigger and better without becoming too commercial. It remains joyously unwieldy. There's a carefree vibe and a sense of inclusiveness to go along with the clear blue skies and beautiful weather. While admittedly crowded, everyone seemed to have a good and fun time without becoming rowdy or obnoxious. Each day, we packed a gourmet picnic complete with California red and white wines and a variety of cheese and crackers and other satisfying snacks to enjoy. The music and the atmosphere is what makes us look forward to returning next year and doing it all over again.

To see a complete list of artists who performed at the 2016 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as well as to link to the webcast archive of selected performances:

All photos: By Michael Dickens © 2016.

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