By Tim Simmers, George Martin & Mike Alexis
Walking in the woods sets the tone for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and most attendees do just that--take a stroll through the dirt paths of Golden Gate Park--to get there.
"This is my sixth year in a row," said Creston Creswell of San Francisco, carrying his one-year old son on his shoulders through the woods. "I love it, and plan my whole weekend around it." Creswell showed up at 8 a.m. with blankets and a tarp, and got a seat in front of the stage.
Hula Hooping Crowd
photo: Ray Bussolari
Rainbow-colored blankets, lawn chairs, and coolers were laid all over Speedway Meadow in the morning sun before anybody even started playing Saturday. Kids kicked soccer balls, dogs roamed the grassy fields and mothers and fathers carried their toddlers piggyback as the earthy sound of fiddles, steel guitars, and banjos started to fill the air. Joggers threaded their way through the scattering of fans walking along John F. Kennedy Drive, toward the various stages.
"This is hardly strictly for Americans," smiled a very British-sounding gentleman as he and his wife strolled under the trees near the Star Stage early Saturday morning.
Along with his wife and another couple the group was carrying picnic supplies on their way to the Rooster Stage, where they were looking forward to seeing Dublin-born singer-songwriter Fionn Regan.
"We're from Brighton," the man added. "Our friends told us about this festival and I had some vacation, so we went to Mono Lake, and to the White Mountains to see the bristlecone pines, the ghost town of Bodie, and now here."
A young man from the East Coast chimed in: "I was showing this lineup to my friend back in New Jersey, and he was saying, 'You're kidding me!' And you can't beat the price, so I flew out."
Austin Lounge Lizards
photo: Anthony Pidgeon
Opening the Arrow Stage, the Austin Lounge Lizards were in the middle of a long wrestling match with the sound system, trying to eliminate a problem from the stage monitors by cutting certain frequencies down in the mix. When they finally got the system dialed in, one band member said over the house PA, "We like to interview the crowd on the sound check. Was it interesting? Friendly? Weird?"
Each question drew a smattering of applause from the crowd--clearly a bunch ready to have a good time. Just then a fan walked by giving up the day's first aroma of patchouli oil.
No doubt, there's still a hint of '60s vibes in Golden Gate Park after all these years. People carried puppy dogs, leaned on trees and kissed in the eucalyptus groves. Latecomers scurried down the dusty Indian Summer trails to catch a glimpse of the action. With long hair hanging out of cowboy hats, and ladies in loose dresses kicking up their heels, the vibes were relaxed in the meadow.
Over at the Arrow stage, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock of the Flatlanders had the rowdy part of the crowd loving its brand of the Texas country rock. Even the twentysomething guy in a multicolored tie-dye T-shirt and dreadlocks stopped strumming his guitar for a moment to bob his head to the music.
photo: Anthony Pidgeon
One of the Flatlanders yelled from the stage: "Warren Hellman for president!" as the band tore into a Western swing/blues number. It was one of many "pro-Warren" proclamations of the day. "I don't know a billionaire whose kicking down any dollars just to make me and other people smile," said Arann Harris. "I'm trying to get people to start a 'thank you Warren chant.'"
A young girl in a pink tutu with an aqua-blue bikini top stopped shaking her hips with her hula hoop so she could head over to see Michelle Shocked, who rocked the Arrow stage next. Shocked was a consummate performer--she banged her Telecaster guitar, sang joyously, and strutted across the stage like a pro.
photo: Anthony Pidgeon
Someone in the crowd yelled for "Strawberry Jam" and then Shocked began strumming the song's opening chord progression, naming each chord as she played it. Her band then eased into the song, hesitatingly at first, and it became clear that they were learning it on the spot. Halfway through they were locked into the song's groove and the crowd showed its appreciation for such spontaneity with wild cheers.
All throughout the day, the Blue Angels fighter jets (part of San Francisco's annual Fleet Week) roared overhead, and a few were found flying in unison just before Boz Scaggs & the Blue Velvet Band took the Rooster Stage.
Scaggs wore a wide-brimmed straw hat pulled down over his brow, and sang a couple of Hank Williams songs in his laid-back, smooth voice. People jammed into the meadow, reveling in the terrific honky-tonk sound. Dynamite guitarist Buddy Miller and soulful Jon Cleary on electric piano added plenty of flavor.
Some of the crowd nestled on the hillside under the shady trees to watch the music. Couples were swing dancing and waltzing, as Scaggs went from Bill Monroe to New Orleans Boogie Woogie.
A rousing blast of old time country and rockabilly was heard from the Knitters over on the Star Stage, which was packed and buzzing in anticipation of John Prine's emotional set. People with Panama hats, gray beards, spiked hair, dreadlocks, and bikini tops roared when Prine stepped up with his vintage acoustic guitar.
"It's awful early in the morning for all of us to get together," deadpanned the folk songwriter extraordinaire. "I wonder how you all got to my room." It should be noted it was well passed noon at this point.
A woman in a floppy hat with flowers on it, and wearing a "Women for Peace" button, marveled at the bountiful festival lineup. "I have to decide between John Prine and Nick Lowe at the same time?" said Lori Stasukelis, a longtime San Francisco resident who was attending her third straight Hardly Strictly event. She chose Prine, and proceeded to sing all the words to his touching version of "Angel from Montgomery." She wasn't the only one. "Everyone's in the "know the words section,'" she added. "This whole thing is a gift," Stasukelis said smiling. "What I love is there's no ads for anything. No distractions."
photo: jon r. luini
On the Banjo Stage Dale Ann Bradley kicked off her portion of the show with "Julia Belle," a song about the steamboat that the late John Hartford used to pilot. Her warm, lyrical voice soaring over the crowd as Ramona Church's banjo bounced along in support and fiddler Jeremy Adshire added fills and embellishment.
"I see all colors of shirts, hats, and smiles out there," Bradley said as she surveyed the crowd. She might have said the same thing about the clear blue sky above where a bright red biplane and three single-winged prop planes buzzed around in formation.
Wearing a particularly colorful fringed T-shirt from Hog Ranch Radio (the onsite station at the Strawberry Music Festivals) was a woman who identified herself as Party Patty from Santa Cruz.
Before departing from her ice chest and folding chairs to make her way to the area in front of the sound booth where dancers congregated, she was pouring Bushmill's Irish whiskey into a green water bottle, saying, "I've got to lock and load."
Patty had a poignant festival tale to tell. Her longtime companion, one Greg Davis, with whom she had attended the first three HSBs (and many Strawberry Festivals) came down with a brain disease and died.
"I missed the festival three years ago because he was so sick," she said. "But I've been back since and I always bring his folding chair and put it in the audience. I feel like he is still here with me."
Davis was a musician and a fine singer, Patty said, especially when he sang "Amazing Grace." "Fortunately I had that on a CD," she said. "He sang at his own funeral."
The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers from Eastern Tennessee and the Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven were a study in contrasts. The Hilltoppers sounded like your basic front porch band in the deepest backwoods. Brown plays banjo, but in a very sophisticated, melodic, jazzy style. Her group did Django Reinhardt music, Latin beat and jazz, all heavy on percussion.
A sweet moment was when Brown's daughter Hannah, who appears to be about five years old, sang "California, Here I Come," with the band to wild applause. Hannah travels with Brown and her bass player husband, Gary West, and frequently sings that song into a small, child-size microphone. It's a real crowd-pleaser.
Among the audience members cheering little Hannah was a young man wearing a T-shirt that says: "...because without beer things do not seem to go as well." -- Diary of Brother Epp, Capuchin Monastery, Munjor Kans., 1902.
Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby
photo: jay blakesberg
When Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby and Kentucky Thunder took the stage about 3:30 people were pouring into the audience area in a steady stream. Hornsby, who is famous mostly for playing a lot of piano with the Grateful Dead, had a big Steinway grand on stage and his influence seems to be taking Skaggs to another musical place.
Skaggs has gone from bluegrass to a show business rocket ride as a country star, then back to bluegrass and now to a jam band country/jazz sound that had much of the crowd dancing and jumping.
They closed with Rick James' "Superfreak," which is on Skaggs and Hornsby's recent CD collaboration. It didn't sound much like Bill Monroe but the crowd was moving with the music.
You'd think it would be difficult for a duo to follow an eight-piece band but Gillian Welch and David Rawlings made it look easy. The two young singers are intense, and Rawlings has a distinctive guitar style with lots of powerful down strokes not unlike what Bill Monroe used to do on mandolin. Welch's songs are country-ish but Rawlings infuses them with the power of rock, all from a small-bodied 1930s Epiphone arch top guitar.
As Welch played the huge meadow before her became standing room only, a sea of swaying fans. A shift in the wind brought barbecue smoke wafting overhead, and as the sun got lower flights of geese and ducks flew overhead.
Welch peeled off her leather jacket revealing a mint green spaghetti strap mini dress. "This is the nicest weather I have ever played in here," she said. "Sometimes I'm up here in a parka."
The pungent smell of herbs, kettle corn, and barbecued chicken wafted through the air as the sun inched down, and sea gulls flew across the sky. That's when Los Lobos lit up the Star Stage.
Cesar Rosas (Los Lobos)
photo: jon r. luini
The band started out strumming hard on their acoustic guitars, creating a pulsating beat, adding saxophone, pedal steel and accordion. To add even more to the musical stew, Los Lobos brought out cow bells, maracas and their melodic vocal harmonies and when the first song kicked in, women couldn't stop dancing and fans let out lusty cheers.
They mixed rock, country, blues and traditional Mexican music, and had the crowd hooting and hollering, and dancing shoulder to shoulder. Others sat on the tops of the rocks, laughed, clapped and danced the tango.
"(Los Lobos) socked it to 'em," said Erik Neel of Cloverdale, who makes the festival every year.
The band dedicated a boogie song to John Lee Hooker, and did a tribute to Fats Domino. Then came the passionate, polka-style Mexican folk music, which brought the crowd into a trance.
Dave Alvin and Joe Ely were brought on stage as guests, rocking out with the band on Alvin's "Long White Cadillac." Then they let it all hang out on a raucous version of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61" with big roars from the crowd as the set turned into a joyous romp.
Back at the Banjo Stage, Warren Hellman himself introduced the final act of the day.
photo: jay blakesberg
"They say I'm in it for politics," he said, and then suggested Golden Gate Park just secedes from the city. "Why don't we call it the Free Republic of Speedway Meadows? ...and my first minister of defense, in charge of chasing away the Blue Angels with great music, my favorite, Steve Earle!"
Earle did the first part of his set alone, just with his guitar. Then his wife, alt-country singer Allison Moorer joined him, and finally a DJ with a portable booth, heavy beats and even the skritch-skritchy sound of manipulated record turntables - a definite Hardly Strictly Bluegrass first.
As darkness fell the stage lights went on and the tiny figure of Earle was illuminated in crystal brightness. The crowd moved as one. Young couples embraced and swayed to the beat, and nuzzled one another.
It seemed like Hellman not only had assembled the greatest array of talent Golden Gate Park had ever seen, but he had created the atmosphere of the World's Greatest Date Movie, minus the movie.