By Tim Simmers, Jim Welte and Chris Streng
As Hardly Strictly Bluegrass enters its eighth consecutive year it shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, it's better than ever with bigger bands, larger crowds and more adventurous booking. Sunday was packed with unforgettable moments both onstage and off as music fans of all ages and persuasions descended upon Golden Gate Park for another day of playing, picking and people watching. The massive Banjo stage played host to some of the pioneers of Bluegrass while the side stages featured broad interpretations of the genre spanning from traditional to truly experimental.
Sunday morning in Golden Gate Park was serene and crisp, but it wasn't long before the place was teeming with music fans of all ages. Beams of sunlight streamed through the trees onto Speedway Meadow as festival veterans created a colorful patchwork quilt of tarps, blankets, lawn chairs and picnic baskets on the grass, staking claim to prime territory in front of each of the five stages. The smell of eucalyptus trees was pervasive as people walked through the park along dirt paths on their way to the acclaimed music festival. Sunday's diverse lineup certainly brought out more fans than ever, with more than 100,000 people in attendance according to police estimates.
The sound of the banjos and fiddles was faint at first and started filling the air as bands ran through their morning sound checks. Early-bird festival-goers sipped coffee as a flock of geese slowly flew across the sky. People floated frisbees through the air, tossed footballs to their kids and played with their dogs. Festival veterans hoisted flags and balloons so their friends could spot their piece of real estate. Music lovers poured down through the trees, carrying backpacks and wearing cowboy hats.
"This festival is the best," said Brad Polzin, an artist from Fresno. He planned a recent trip to a Peru so it would end just as Hardly Strictly began. He wouldn't miss the festival for anything, he said. Up on the tiny Porch Stage, financier and festival founder Warren Hellman opened the show by plucking his old banjo with his band the Wronglers. People applauded him for putting on the festival as well as playing his funky old five string. On the Arrow Stage, Poor Man's Whiskey was living proof that musical boundaries are not a part of this event. The band played an upbeat version of the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," invoking the psychedelic ghosts of Golden Gate Park. The morning crowd reveled in the open space and the relatively quiet early bird scene.
Virtuoso guitarist Bill Kirchen had people camped on the hillside waiting for his 11:20 a.m. show at the Star Stage. The wait was worth it. Kirchen drew smiles and hoots with the old Commander Cody song "Down to Stems and Seeds Again." He played a blazing guitar medley of American music, with influences ranging from Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry. He also added a little flavor of the King, Elvis, as well as the other Kings: B.B., Freddie and Albert. He launched into a spirited, honky-tonk version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changing," stating, "Obama should use this as his theme song." He was awarded with a standing ovation. As this was the second Hardly Strictly to be held during an election year, politics were more prevalent than usual. Obama-gear was de rigueur, but most artists simply urged the audience to register to vote without choosing sides.
The crowd was as mixed as the festival talent. 20-and 30-somethings spanned the spectrum from yuppies to hipsters and gray haired folks in tie-dyed shirts danced like it was still 1969. Mothers bopped to the music with their kids on their shoulders and even the dogs seemed well behaved. Possibly the only friction among the crowd came during the Infamous Stringdusters spirited set when two hippies playing frisbee berated an older couple playing croquet for playing "an imperialist sport." Elsewhere, Angel Man, in a head-to-toe silver robot suit with silver hair, worked the crowd, hoping to become San Francisco's favorite superhero. "It's a great family event," said Kristi Witt, a teacher from Cloverdale attending Hardly Strictly for the first time. "My little daughter loves the music, and it's free." Bill Overton, 54, came down from Alaska for the third straight year. "How can you beat it: five stages and 70 bands," he said. "The atmosphere is like when I went to concerts as a kid. This is as much music as I can get exposed to in a short period of time. We don't get much music in Alaska."
The Riders in the Sky took the stage decked out in elaborate Western outfits. They launched into a set that included spirited yodeling, coaxing choruses of "yahoos!" from the growing crowd. Meanwhile, Hazel Dickens' down-home country voice carried across the meadow and up into the trees surrounding the Banjo stage. Dickens, a pioneer of American Bluegrass music, is a staple at Hardly Strictly. During her set, a huge red-tailed hawk, perched at the top of a tall cypress tree behind the stage, flew off and sailed over the crowd; a reminder to audience members that this festival takes place in one of the biggest and most beautiful city parks in the West.
The diversity of Hardly Strictly was apparent early in the day, as smitten college coeds crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with '60s folk fans on Lindley Meadow to see pop-rocker Ben Kweller. The 27-year-old Kweller was one of the weekend's younger performers, but the San Francisco-born singer often channeled The Summer of Love on sunny tracks like "On My Way" and "Family Tree," the latter of which he appropriately dedicated to his wife and son.
In one of the more stunning moments of the festival, Bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley silenced the early afternoon crowd with his haunting version of "O Death." He sung the classic song a capella, and the thousands who had just greeted his arrival on the Banjo Stage with thunderous applause fell deathly quiet, hanging on his every soulful word. The 80-something Bluegrass legend also electrified the crowd when he ripped into "A Man of Constant Sorrow," from the popular "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Stanley possesses a gravely and weathered voice that is one of the most instantly recognizable in Bluegrass. Joined by the Clinch Mountain Boys on guitars, banjo and fiddle, he mixed in fan favorites with gospel-influenced tunes like "Answer the Call."
While Stanley incited hushed reverence, Elvis Costello played to a capacity crowd the Star Stage, as the legendary songwriter returned to Golden Gate Park two years after his Hardly Strictly debut. He was joined by his High Whines & Spirits group, a who's-who of guest stars that included Emmylou Harris, Bill Kirchen, Fats Kaplin, and the impromptu addition of the Burlington Welsh Men's Chorus, a 40-member, all-male choir. Harris joined Costello for a fabulous rendition of the oft-covered "Love Hurts," and the set was chock full of signature moments. The highlights included a rousing rendition of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," as well as the appearance of Costello and wife Diana Krall's twin toddlers, Dexter and Frank, both of whom wore oversized earplugs and wielded drum sticks.
While many people had flocked to the Star Stage for Costello's set, fans at the Rooster Stage were treated to raucous performances by Bonnie "Prince" Billy (aka Will Oldham) and Greg Brown. People scoured the hills for any open space to take in a mesmerizing solo set from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam as well. The hillside walkway above Marx Meadow was so crowded that many fans simply gave up trying to find a spot to see and just stopped amidst the masses and listened. Beam deserved the colossal congregation, as his latest, The Shepherd's Dog, is a masterpiece and his set was pure, quiet beauty.
There is nothing pure or quiet about the raucous gypsy punk collective Gogol Bordello, the act that best epitomized the Hardly Strictly ethos this year. The New York City nine-piece, led by explosive lead singer Eugene Hutz, included drums, guitar, bass, congas, accordion, fiddle, and two female dancers dressed like wannabe "fly girls" from In Living Colour. The set was unlike anything seen before at Hardly Strictly, yet it was roots music at its core and fit seamlessly. While the diversity brought bigger crowds, it also opened up plenty of ears to music they wouldn't have heard otherwise. Gogol Bordello fanatic Todd Mitchell, 24, traveled in from Tracy, Calif., to see his favorite group. But while Mitchell could barely contain his excitement during Gogol's set, he planned to see them again that night at Slim's for a dog rescue benefit, both Greg Brown and Beam blew him away. "Those two guys were incredible, and I'm not really a singer-songwriter guy," he said. "None of my friends listen to that kind of music, and I would've never heard of them otherwise."
Throughout the day, performers were split between artists who adhered strictly to the traditional bluegrass sound and those who used it as a template for adventurous hybrids. The Alison Brown Quartet played a progressive, Celtic-tinged set on the Arrow stage while the tiny Porch stage played to host to some of the most eclectic artists of the day. Red Wine came all the way from Genoa, Italy to rock the stage while the Opera Dukes, composed of orchestra members of the SF Opera Company, played traditional bluegrass with operatic vocals. The Porch stage is a hidden gem with its smaller crowds, innovative line up and great people-watching as crowds stream in from nearby JFK Drive.
By mid-day, small pick-up bands lined the streets including lots of duos who looked like couples and even a lone lap steel player who sat on a curb picking away and talking to girls. One duo, the Ferocious Few, played a sort of dust bowl punk that sounded like an old 78 record played at the wrong speed. This was at least their second year on the fringes as they were seen whipping up a similar sonic tumbleweed the year before. Their tip jar overflowed and CD sales were brisk. It is ironic that a free festival would attract so many young entrepreneurs. Beer and stronger substances were available along most walkways though one would have to question the wisdom of buying a pot brownie from a man with a tattooed face. The underground economy of Hardly Strictly may want to know that among the concession stands, rumor has it that the biggest seller of the weekend was corn on the cob.
As a luminous Emmylou Harris closed the fest at the Banjo Stage and jam rockers Tea Leaf Green rounded out the day on the Arrow, Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray were taking out some Heavy Trash on the Star Stage. That's the duo's moniker for their three-year-old rockabilly-blues group, and while it was plenty dirty, it was tighter and cleaner than much of Spencer's acclaimed, distortion-fueled work with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. There was plenty of Elvis in the music, but an unexpected influence showed up as well, as Spencer channeled James Brown with shouts, screams, and rants as his laser sharp band hung on his every word, ready to take him wherever he commanded. This trash was sonic gold, both paying tribute to American roots music but also turning it on its ear, creating a fitting end to yet another incredible Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.