Music for music’s sake. This is the message behind the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, one of San Francisco’s most anticipated musical events of the year. Funded by 77-year-old investment banker and music fanatic Warren Hellman, the event is free for the public and usually boasts around 750,000 people in attendance.
This year was no different. With a decorated and diverse lineup that included performances by Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Bright Eyes, Broken Social Scene, and DeVotchka, this three-day assemblage was a welcoming ode to autumn. With sun-kissed weather accented by a brisk wind, all types of festivalgoers flocked to Golden Gate Park to make their pilgrimage. This is truly a festival for the intermingling of the old and the new: a time to appreciate seasoned veterans like Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses), John Prine, and Irma Thomas, while exploring new tastes with acts like Gomez, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Elbow. The crowd was a mix of the toothless and the homeless, the hipsters and the hippies, the yuppies and the socialites. To even begin to describe the range of cacophonous sounds, the ambiguous and perpetual haze that clouds one’s vision, the plethora of smells… all of these color every vein of San Franciscan life, and have come to be represented in this review through picture and word.
And rest assured, there were many priceless moments, the kind that only rock and roll — and San Francisco — can deliver. There was Devotchka’s Nick Urata chugging a bottle of red wine and then dousing the screaming crowd with it; thousands of people dropping to the ground and then jumping up simultaneously to the jarring sound of Fitz and the Tantrums; and time traveling backward into the ’60s during performances by Robert Plant & the Band of Joy and Dark Star Orchestra. The sort of feeling that comes with these experiences, that feeling that music is perhaps the only thing that can unite us and save us as human beings, is a memorable one. All idealism aside, each artist on the lineup delivered their best, and as CoS can duly attest to, the infamous adage rings true for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: “The best things in life are free.”
– Summer Dunsmore
Friday, September 30th
Southern Culture on the Skids – Arrow Stage
Scrupulous in their live performance, Southern Culture on the Skids has labored long over streamlining every aspect of their set. It’s what rock and roll should be — calculated yet improvisational, evidencing clear skill and creativity, while also being rigorous and animated. Band members Rick Miller, Dave Hartman, and Mary Huff resonated and glowed with effortless style during the entirety of their performance. All husky seduction, Miller wailed and moaned into the microphone, picking fiercely at his electric guitar. His counterpart, Huff, is a red-haired raven who knows how to keep up with the boys; she seduced eardrums during her performance of “You’re a Star”. The band’s music live embodies southern soul mixed with touches of naughty fun; their rendition of “The Wet Spot” — which sounded like Middle Eastern music accentuated with a touch of The Beach Boys’ surfer sound — featured a barely clothed belly dancer. With calls to clap, sing, and dance, their live performance at HSB turned out to be one of the most rallying shows of Friday afternoon.
The Felice Brothers – Rooster Stage
The Felice Brothers — Farley, James, Christmas, and Ian — have the sort of chemistry you can only find with family. James Felice’s performance of “Got What I Need” was a soulful soliloquy set organically in the midst of Golden Gate Park’s towering trees. His voice vibrant and resonant, James truly connected with the audience during this song, even interjecting an ever appropriate accordion solo. The Felice Brothers exhibited an interesting assortment of instruments during their set, and they used the accordion and the fiddle indiscriminately to construct their modern bluegrass sound.
As the main singer of the band, James emerged as the band’s truly talented jewel; his performance had all of the sincere, aching loneliness that attracts listeners to this genre. One can tell that the Felice Brothers write and play their music as a means to relate, a way for the listener to finally come to terms with the sort of feelings that they cannot put into words. Likewise, during “Saint Stephen’s End”, the mood was slow, emotive, and charismatic; it resonated within its surroundings. It was romantic and piercing, like a lullaby to a loved one, a last glance as a train leaves the station, the sun in your eyelashes. The last song of the set was “Whiskey in My Whiskey”, an ode recounting love, loss, and, of course, whiskey. As James wails the line, “I put some whiskey in my whiskey,” all one can think is — we’ve all done this, right? And that’s the Felice Brothers for you — soothing, poignant, and as good as the comforts of your favorite liquor.
John Prine – Banjo Stage
Active as a folk singer since 1971, John Prine’s style is reminiscent of another time. The power of his performance on Friday was in its subtlety. Dressed like Johnny Cash, his voice husky with wisdom and cigarettes, he sang to the old sentiments of America. While listening to tracks like “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”, one envisioned rocking chairs and summers by the lake; through his knack for songwriting and gentle acoustic guitar strumming, Prine created truly vivid imagery onstage. Folk artists today should take their notes from Prine; his formula is composed of simplicity and talent. The audience came to see Prine’s performance for his old soul, the way his voice carried on the early autumn wind during tracks like “Fish and Whistle”. He left the crowd with the whims of nostalgia, of a time when all you needed to create great music was an acoustic guitar and a vision.
Chris Isaak – Star Stage
The essence of Chris Isaak lies in the art of seduction. His voice drips like caramel when he performs live and is even sweeter than the croon that classifies his recorded work. The highlight of his performance, however predictable, was “Wicked Game”. With its infamous guitar succession from the Bm to A to E chords, its performance live delivers all of the dark romanticism one would envision. His artful yodel reverberating through the crowd, he sang, “Oh, I don’t want to fall in love with you,” and yet every woman instantly and effortlessly fell in love with him. At the song’s end, he held an infinite last sigh, and the crowd went wild for this man who mesmerizes.
M. Ward – Rooster Stage
Matthew Steven Ward, or simply “M. Ward”, conducts a rambunctious live show. Originally arising out of the Portland music scene, he’s been making music since 1999, and his sound has evolved to integrate the grind of rock and roll with tender, folkish finger picking. His performance at HSB seemed to be emulating Elvis, and just like with the King of Rock and Roll, the crowd adored M. Ward. His rendition of “Chinese Translation” was thunderous, with kick-drum beats that were so loud they threatened to break the speakers and a thrilling ensemble of electric and acoustic guitars. The crowd loved him so much they demanded an encore, and he was the perfect precursor to Bright Eyes, the next act on the Rooster Stage.
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy- Banjo Stage
Friday night at the Banjo Stage, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy were like the release of a long-held breath; there, before a crowd of thousands, was one of the greatest figures in rock and roll history. Plant formed his Band of Joy in 2010 in the pursuit of “something trippy, something far out” in which to sink his teeth into. Following a series of successful collaborations with Jimmy Page and Allison Krauss, Plant’s latest endeavor with the Band of Joy has led him around the United States in the past year to promote the band’s eponymous debut. Given his legacy as the lead singer for Led Zeppelin, one can tell from original tracks like “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “Gallows Pole”, and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” that a blues influence has always existed in Plant’s creative musings, and has since framed the bluegrass sound for his modern Band of Joy.
Covering Zeppelin songs like “Black Dog” during their performance, the Band of Joy put their distinct twist on the classics. And though Plant is 63 years old, with a long history of infamous nights raging and ravaging the music world, his live performance at HSB proved that true talent never dies. He visibly felt every note, every wail of the guitar. He is music; he was effeminate and exaggerated, moving like a sphinx, twisting and twirling and clapping along with the beats. The Band of Joy’s performance of “House of Cards” was a jewel, with long, trailing guitar wails matched perfectly to the resonance of Plant’s high-pitched exultations.
Bright Eyes – Rooster Stage
Clamorous and willing, the crowd collected in a small corner of Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow to see Bright Eyes. The California sun setting behind them, the crowd instead faced east, allured by the promise of seeing Conor Oberst live. As one of the headlining acts of Friday evening, the band delivered all of its hooks masterfully, with Oberst’s voice exhibiting its uniquely raw and reverberating sound. The two best songs of the set were some of Bright Eyes’ classics, “First Day of My Life” and “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”. “First” was played with Oberst set on center stage in a vulnerable and poignant position; a pipe organ traced the song’s beat behind him. “Lover” followed directly after and is often considered a stark contrast in sound and style to many of Bright Eyes’ songs. Extremely stylistic when performed live, it was flavored with a sweeping electric guitar, as well as the keyboard and drum succession that make it such a strong piece. It was a dramatic example of Oberst’s talent and vision, and on Friday night he proved that he truly deserves to be called one of the most influential artists of the indie music scene.