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.
Saturday, October 1st
Broken Social Scene – Towers of Gold Stage
Photo by Marcus Gedai
On this hazy Saturday afternoon, with the intermingling of dust and pot smoke, the ambiance for the evening was set when Broken Social Scene came onstage. Their performance of “Sweetest Kill” radiated outward from all directions, a mellow ode, a welcomed difference given the other “strictly bluegrass” bands on this day’s lineup. This stage was where the hipsters languished and descended for the day to listen to the orchestral music that Broken Social Scene so effortlessly produced. There was a desire to close your eyes, vibe, and listen; their performance packed punch, as if it were meant for an amphitheater, and they seemed to take notes from purely instrumentalist bands like Explosions in the Sky.
Irma Thomas – Star Stage
Irma Thomas is a goddess. With a voice that communicates every emotion, every tribulation, her performance was one of the weekend’s best. Performing such hits as “Time Is on My Side” and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, her voice ripped and roared through the evening. She was a robust, animated performer, an obvious queen of her trade. More than that, she knew how to catapult the audience into a frenzy; people sang and swayed, their souls filled with the sweet sounds of the 60s. The performance was practiced, clean, concise — truly the depiction of talent at its best.
Robert Earl Keen – Rooster Stage
Robert Earl Keen is a country songwriter from Texas. His music, likewise, comes from the American South; it’s all about the acoustic guitar solos, the subtle bass, and the simple drum line. His performance was a fun one, filled with hits like “Feelin’ Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon”. His best track was “I Gotta Go”, where he integrated his uniquely stylized and meticulous finger picking. He lent the essence of bluegrass back to the festival, with a performance as charming as his silk, three-piece suit.
The Flatlanders feat. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Butch Hancock – Arrow Stage
Photo by Marcus Gedai
The Flatlanders’ performance was like the golden rays of the California sun; the lyrics and sound of singers Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock are warm and nostalgic. The Flatlanders originally formed in 1972, but after a year decided to disband; they then resumed performing in 1998 to much critic acclaim. These Texan mavericks made the Lone Star State proud on Saturday, channeling the soul and vivacity that makes Texas such a pivotal influence on the American music scene. Performing such songs as “Homeland Refugee”, the three sang about “leaving California for the Dust Bowl”, and the trio’s combination of voices came out sounding like a lullaby. There was an obvious camaraderie between the members onstage, making their performance an enjoyable one to watch.
Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses) featuring Allison Moorer – Banjo Stage
Steve Earle, his team of Dukes and Duchesses, and Allison Moorer performed the best set of Saturday. The relationship between Steve Earle and Allison Moorer on stage is reminiscent of Robert Plant and Allison Krauss; it’s a duet written in the stars. During Earle’s solo performance of “Meet Me in the Alleyway”, voice synthesizer and harmonica in hand, he played blues as blues is meant to played — vivid, husky, dark. It was all about him in this moment, about his talent, his knack for improvisation. He connected well with the audience; they were receptive to every slide of the harmonica, and there was a clear leeway, a union, as he and the audience tossed vibes back and forth. It was clear in this moment how music is felt so integrally, so innately.
At the end of a brilliant set, Earle and the Gang performed a cover of The Animals’ “San Francisco Nights”. With Allison Moorer’s first lyric sung, her voice lingering on the edges of San Francisco’s misty sunset, the crowd was united in the tone of the song. Could a moment ever be as perfectly picturesque as this: San Francisco, the crescent moon lingering in the sky, a place the hippies never left. It was metaphysical, transcendent, and it was clear that what defines San Francisco in the past and the present is its people. The music and the crowd were one, and this “warm San Francisco night” ended with one of the best performances of the weekend.
Sunday, October 2nd
DeVotchKa – Star Stage
DeVotchKa embodies the art of performance and rock & roll. Not only is Nick Urata an incredible singer, one who sings with all levels of emotion and can carry his note for more than 30 seconds, but he can play the banjo like the Devil’s right hand. The wallowing cry of his voice on Sunday could be heard for miles, as Urata and band rocked “How It Ends” and “You Love Me”. Jeanie Schroder played in incredible form, balancing the likes of a cello, and then a trombone, on her feminine frame. At the end of the set, Urata let out a last tribal cry, erupting eardrums all around, and then beat fervently at his banjo. He then grabbed a bottle of red wine set nearby, chugged it, and then swung the contents viciously at the crowd. I was doused completely, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. Urata is a master onstage, all art, style, and soul, and him and the rest of DeVotchKa delivered one of the best performances I have ever seen.
Fitz and the Tantrums – Towers of Gold Stage
Fitz and the Tantrums followed DeVotchKa and also played one of the most energetic shows of the weekend. The coursing heart of the group lies in Noelle Scaggs, who pranced around the stage during the band’s performance of “Pickin’ Up the Pieces”, beating her tambourine. She screamed, jumped, threw up the middle finger; never before have I seen a performer with so much sincerely energetic vigor. Her and Michael Fitzpatrick strike a charming dualism and effectively bring back the 1950s duet. Their voices were sweet together, rejoicing, nostalgic. Because of their animated way of performing, you can tell that the band operates under an element of perfectionism; they wanted that performance, that day, to be the best they had ever done. And they were certainly successful; every ounce of energy, talent, and improvisation visibly went into this effort.
Fitz and band followed with a cover of The Raconteurs’ “Steady, As She Goes”, which didn’t have the same resonance of Jack White, but it definitely had its own twist. Nonetheless, the crowd loved it, and they also went crazy for a cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”. Next was “L.O.V.”, which featured a rampant pipe organ (including a solo), drums, and keyboard. The crowd continued dancing wildly, and it was clear that this soulful style of music resonates with our generation as well. Their last song, “Moneygrabber”, was a more modern piece compared to the other cuts. Fitzpatrick and Scaggs yelled into the microphone, “Everyone, drop it like it’s hot!”; in sync, everyone shimmied down to the ground, then at the climax of the song and on Scaggs’ cue, the thousands of people in the crowd jumped up simultaneously and began a crazy dance party under the gaze of the Sunday sun.
Elbow – Star Stage
Elbow is a band that typifies modern alternative music. Led by the charismatic Guy Garvey, the band utilizes clear, acoustic strokes and strong kick-drum accents in their songs, creating an almost Middle Eastern, arabic tone. This was evident in their performance of “The Bones of You”; during the entirety of the song, Garvey reached out to the crowd, needing their participation, their approval, their love. The mood continued with “Mirrorball”, which featured an interesting mix of electric guitar and delicate vocalization. The performance was tender and sentimental; there was a moment where Garvey looked backward at the band members and smiled, and they each smiled back. You can tell there’s love amongst them, infused in every vein of their music, and that Garvey is the creative drive that keeps the band together. For him, synchronization, dutifulness, and practice are key, and what enveloped on Sunday was an ambiatic, well-performed set.
Dark Star Orchestra – Arrow Stage
Making my way to see Dark Star Orchestra’s performance, a concoction of smells enveloped me. Had I suddenly landed in the 60’s? Hippies of every size and shape wriggled and warped time with their free love and free drugs.
As one of the most acclaimed tribute bands to the Grateful Dead, Dark Star Orchestra has been performing since 1997 and has performed more than 2,000 shows. In the style of Jerry Garcia and his companions, they specialize in improvisational rock. Befitted in tie-dye tees, hair long and flowing, they entranced festivalgoers on Sunday with a dominant mix of electric guitar, bass guitar, and keyboard. The highlight of their performance was “The Music Never Stopped”, and I know that many people hoped it never would.
The Jayhawks – Rooster Stage
Unfortunately, The Jayhawks’ performance was the weakest of any I witnessed over the weekend. Coming off their recently released album, Mockingbird Time, the performance felt listless, as if playing live was a laborous task. Band members Gary Louris and Mark Olson did not express much enthusiasm while onstage, pausing at times to elicit a laugh from the crowd, but then resuming their rather stagnant performances. This is when I realized that not every set is golden and does not always proceed on the best note; these men are required to play, whether they are in the mood or not, and at the end of the day, they are simply human. The audience was receptive to this sentiment and likewise stood there barely moving, nodding their heads slightly. They played a track off their new album, “High Water Blues”, but altogether the performance was boring.
Gomez – Towers of Gold Stage
At the start of the set, lead singer Ian Ball yelled, “The sun’s going down, and we’re coming up!” And that’s exactly what happened. Gomez is a band that produces solid indie, exalting in their shows a youthful, enthusiastic energy. Their performance was providential, a truly human experience; it is with music, more than any other medium, that we learn the most about ourselves. And this was Gomez — raw, with Ball demanding that the audience dance like “crazy natives”, like they’re “lost in the middle of the woods and don’t know what the hell is going on.” And with the crescent moon arched visibly in the sky, these Sunday headliners said good-bye to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.