The tenth year of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass kicked off with traffic. Construction on Fell! Blocked lanes across the city! Friday festival-goers had an experience that was replicated for many over the weekend: spending way too long parking, and then rushing through the trees to the allure of distant music.
At the Star Stage, Friday morning saw fog and hundreds of San Francisco students, gossiping and spacing out as local favorites P.M.W. forged a bridge between bluegrass and hip-hop. This year they covered Young MC's "Bust A Move" -- freshly hip thanks to the television show Glee -- and grabbed Roosevelt students for an impromptu onstage dance-off. They followed it with a guy playing a suitcase: typical P.M.W. They closed the show with a song they'd written about the festival: "Music rings through the eucalyptus trees/Hardly strictly what you'd expect to find/Thank you Warren/For a real good time."
Of course, the main attraction of the morning was MC Hammer, who was playing his third year at Hardly Strictly. But the kids weren't going to get there that easily: first, deputy superintendent Richard Carranza took the stage with, of all people, Warren Hellman. God love him, but Hellman's voice isn't his strong suit, and he upped the ante even further by singing a song in Spanish before yielding to Carranza, who played a perfectly passable version of "La Bamba," which elicited spontaneous dancing from the kids as he segued into "Twist and Shout." Did it help with his image among the kids? Hard to say.
Hammer took the stage late, and the crowd's pulse had suddenly leaped: adults began crowding outside the fences and not one but two KGO vans parked near the stage. Even if he hasn't had a hit in nearly two decades, the man can still bring it: he opened with "Your Body," which sounded so polished it could have been dubbed. Two male dancers backflipped onto the stage in tuxedos, eliciting a roar from the crowd, and "Pumps and a Bump" thudded with subsonic bass. You might ask, "Pumps and a Bump" -- for middle schoolers? But he followed it with "Pray" -- from asses to amens, and that's MC Hammer, a complicated guy. One shaggy-headed twelve year old said to another: "Oh my god, MC Hammer is awesome."
After some wonderful dancing from his troupe, Hammer broke into "Too Legit to Quit," and then brought students onstage for "Can't Touch This." They were, predictably, freaking out. A kid in a purple sweatshirt and a girl in a pink sweater broke it down, while the dancers backflipped off the stage. It was all over too fast, but as always, the man's a professional and he had just made himself a whole new generation of fans.
That afternoon at the Banjo Stage, a more adult crowd prepared to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hardly Strictly. Speedway Meadow was a patchwork quilt of people, blankets, flying Frisbees, balloons, dogs, hula hoops and bouncing babies. It was the opening day of this treasure of a festival that featured some 80 bands in three days.
Financier Warren Hellman started his free bash ten years ago, and he admitted Friday after being introduced by Mark Leno that "We weren't sure anybody was going to show up." He received a standing ovation from the early bird crowd, and tossed in a political jibe to boot, saying: "With all the disruption in this country" let's call this the "Speedway Meadow Party."
Then Hellman introduced the Ebony Hillbillies, whom he'd met at a festival in Colorado. This is one of the great aspects of HSB -- if Warren likes a band, he puts them on the Banjo Stage and gives them the biggest audience they've ever had. "They'll knock your socks off," he says of the all-black stringband, but it took a while for the group to hit their stride. Once they did, about three songs in, the crowd was with them. This was old-time stuff: wooden spoons, banjo, fiddle, bass and washboard -- and Newman Taylor Baker plays the washboard with shotgun shells. Of course, string band music was always black as well as white music, and another act playing the festival the following day, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, also harks back to that tradition.
During the group's set, the security guards danced -- a first. The fiddle player bowed in the sympathetic string style particular to black string bands, a technique which creates a kind of constant drone under the melody, and singer Gloria Thomas Gassaway won the crowd over with her bawdy jokes. She sang "When I make my meat shake on these bones/some skinny woman's gonna lose her home," and the crowd lapped it up.
She then performed "Broke-Leg Chicken" and convinced an entire crowd of people to do the chicken dance. It got even better when she brought Warren out onstage and urged him to "work the junk in his trunk" -- and Warren, to everyone's surprise, did it. He shook his booty at the crowd -- clearly another festival first. A man leans over: "Know who that is? That's the guy who pays for everything. What a great guy."
Across the meadow on the Rooster Stage, which sits down in a holler, dobro great Jerry Douglas cut into some experimental tribal rock with an exotic middle eastern flavor. The trance-like drumming of Omar Hakim and soothing bass of Viktor Krauss seemed to take the early afternoon crowd to another astral plane. Douglas even showed his versatility warming up on some deep blues riffs.
"This is the kick off of probably the best music festival in the whole world," said Douglas, a veteran Hardly Strictly performer. "Warren Hellman is some kind of great guy to give this kind of birthday party for his wife." Then he launched into "Sunday Afternoon Man," turning it into a grooving and rowdy Irish tune.
Douglas is a bluegrass master, but he's hell-bent on breaking boundaries, so he's at the right festival. At one point he stretched out his smooth licks into something very spacey as a hippie couple with flowing hair and beads danced in the dirt on the ridge overlooking the stage.
Omar Hakim hooted and howled on an inspiring drum solo, and Douglas added a growling dobro sound that somehow brought to mind dancing dinosaurs. The group hit a peaceful groove on a free-spirited Krauss tune called "Here To Be Me."
Down the hill and across the meadow, the Waybacks were closing their Arrow Stage show with a back-porch rendition of "Shady Grove." It incorporated the fine vocals of Sarah Dugas of the Duhks, and was the kind of haunting, old-time classic with just the right mixture of modern flavor that typifies this soiree and excites the crowd.
"It's the music we love, and it's very different down here from our home," said Robin Lewis-Kane, who came down to see the festival with some teachers from Angel's Camp in the Sierra Foothills.
The Arrow Stage seemed to have its own brand of independent souls milling about. A parade of roving merchants included ladies in bright colors selling Indian samosas, and some folks offering medical-grade marijuana and brownies on trays. Not to be outdone, a group of young girls in psychedelic blouses skipped by arm-in-arm while a man dressed in an ensemble of tie-dyed of shirt, pants and shoes had lots of necks craning.
Between the Rooster and Banjo Stages, a band of greasy-haired hippies were performing a lovely acoustic bluegrass version of "I Still Miss Someone." Their harmonies were impeccable, and the female singer/mandolinist was seriously talented. Get these kids some shampoo and Portland-based bluegrass darlings Fruition might just go somewhere.
Back at the Rooster Stage, Patty Griffin followed Jerry Douglas. As Griffin started to play, a woman in the crowd said to her partner, "This is so romantic!" And so it was, with the trees, the late afternoon sun and Griffin, a tiny woman with an outsized voice, crooning away onstage. She concentrated on gospel tunes stemming from her 2010 release Downtown Church, which was produced by Buddy Miller, who joined her onstage. A few songs in, Emmylou Harris emerged from backstage to provide harmonies on "Little Fire." Harris leaned backwards as she sang, head wagging, and you could sense she was as enraptured as everyone else.
Griffin raved about working with Buddy Miller. "I wasn't that well informed about gospel music, but Buddy Miller is the walking encyclopedia of American roots music," she said. "He gave me 300 songs to listen to and it crashed my iPod." She and Miller then sang a beautiful tune that had been in that data dump: Alfred G. Carnes' "Little Stone," a sweet and simple song which seems to describe Tir Na Nog, the Irish land where you never grow old. When Griffin finished, a man in the crowd said, "That little gal's got a voice." Indeed.
A big musical highlight back on the Arrow Stage was the 7 Walkers, featuring former Grateful Dead drummer Billy Kreutzmann, George Porter, Jr., Papa Mali and Matt Hubbard. Their version of Jerry Garcia's tune "Sugaree" was extra-special. Funkmaster bass player George Porter, Jr. of the Meters sang the song in a swampy New Orleans style, dripping with soul. He also put down some ultra-funky bass riffs that got people dancing. Soon everyone was singing "Shake it, shake it ... Sugaree" in unison. Porter went so deep he started bringing out the sun on a foggy day. He doesn't much look at his bass while he's playing - it's pure feeling.
Kreutzmann relayed a message to the crowd: "This is where it all started" for him and the Grafeful Dead -- in Golden Gate Park. There are a lot of ghosts from that era at Hardly Strictly. The event seems to summon up ancestors and souls from the '60s who make it at times look like a rock concert from those days -- even though the crowd is wide-ranging in ages.
The funky blues style and electronic voodoo flavor of guitarist Papa Mali added plenty to the 7 Walkers' soulful rhythm. The band played another Dead standby, "Turn on Your Love Light," and the psychedelic San Francisco sound went just fine with New Orleans funk.
At the Rooster Stage, the crush of people who'd kept security guards busy with Patty Griffin eased up for Jenny and Johnny. The duo brought in a younger, slightly hipper crowd, in part because "Jenny" is Jenny Lewis, lead singer of Rilo Kiley, solo artist, former television actress and all-around character. Her boyfriend, Jonathan Rice, is also a singer-songwriter. Together, they looked the part of Wild Bunch-era rebellious youth: Jenny in a little black dress, boots, sunglasses and bangs, Johnny in his leather jacket and greased hair. But their New Pornographers-esque indie pop showed enough vulnerability to cut through the carefully constructed image: songs like "Scissor Runner," "My Pet Snakes" and "Big Wave" have hooks and heart.
Then the sun came out as the duo sang a gorgeous rendition of "Love Hurts." The moment was quiet and real, and Elvis Costello joined them immediately afterwards on "Carpetbaggers." (Lewis has sung on some Costello recordings.) But his presence was fleeting; the most beautiful moment of the set actually came on the last song, when they abandoned some of the attitude and sang the Lewis-penned "Acid Tongue," a song of such simple power it overshadowed just about everything else they'd sung. Hardly adorned, Jenny's voice is dreamy, and the boys were marvelous on harmony, their arms around each other's shoulders. These are the moments you wait for, when a band gets moved by the spirit.
On the way up the meadow to the Banjo Stage, a colorful pan of paella about eight feet in diameter turned a lot of heads at one of the many merchant shacks. They were hawking everything from soul and Cajun food to Greek dishes, tacos, gourmet donuts, espresso and organic coffee, ice cream and more.
The Banjo Stage was its usual spectacle of pickers, with Ralph Stanley leading his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. They delivered gospel and hard-driving bluegrass with a dose of pure joy, except for when Ralph sang his powerful a cappella version of "Oh Death," popularized by the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. He played banjo with his grandson on guitar on "Bright Shining Sun," a full-on Appalachian treat; it got the cloggers clogging.
Stanley's high-lonesome sound always draws a big crowd. The place got electrified on the wild "Orange Blossom Special" as a flock of six geese flew over. Stanley also played a barn-storming version of "Pretty Polly" that had the solid stamp of Virginia mountain music on it.
Closing out the Banjo Stage on Friday were the Dukes of September Rhythm Review - a throwback blue-eyed soul band featuring Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame, Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, and Boz Scaggs. The ghost of Jerry Garcia appeared again as the band did "Shakedown Street," which included soulful female backup vocals.
Boz Scaggs also yielded a New Orleans-style Chuck Berry song, "Se la vie, say the Old Folks," with McDonald on accordion. It got people dancing as it cooled off Friday. McDonald later sang Ray Charles' "White Lightning," and it came from deep down with that distinctly soothing and gravely voice.
A version of the late '60s Aretha Franklin song "What It Is" also struck lightning with the crowd as the big horn section honked. Then came a great rendition of the Band's "Rag Mama Rag" that nudged the party into high gear. Scaggs then dipped into his old blues bag for some tricks on "Cadillac Walk" by the late great Willy DeVille.
Meanwhile, T Bone Burnett closed down the Rooster Stage. Burnett booked the best avant-garde string band out there, the Punch Brothers, to act as his house band, and then he proceeded to showcase a parade of musicians over the space of an hour and a half. After opening with "Zombieland," he gave the stage to Chris Thile and company, who galloped through "Rye Whiskey" and "Watch 'at Breakdown," littering the stage with jaw-dropping solos. Thile is so good that he doesn't need to concentrate on his playing: he strutted around the stage like a cockerel, bouncing and mugging and dancing with his bandmates while that mandolin moved at triple-time.
Then Jerry Douglas jumped onstage, and T Bone returned to sing "The Long Time Now." Then he introduced the Secret Sisters, a duo out of Alabama whose debut was due out on Burnett's label a few weeks later. "This is their fifth show ever," Burnett crowed, and it looked like it, as these unassuming girls took the stage in flowery dresses and cardigans. But then they blasted the crowd with their megaphone voices on "Big River" -- "I taught the weeping willow how to cry..." -- and the audience lost it; despite their youth they seemed to be tapping into something seriously old.
Burnett came back to sing "River of Love," and then brought out the red-headed Brit Karen Elson, the singer-songwriter/model/wife-of-Jack-White. "More doom and gloom," said Burnett, half-seriously. But if this was doom and gloom, the audience ate it up. Elson taps into old American folk on songs like "The Ghost Who Walks," but the Punch Brothers' inventive playing added a lot to the song. On "The Truth Is In The Dirt," the Secret Sisters returned to the stage to provide harmonies.
After a brief appearance by Venice buskers the Americans -- rockabilly boys in retro garb -- and a rendition of "Every Time I Feel The Shift," Steve Earle, who'd been lurking on the margins for a while, took center stage and sang his Katrina song, "This City." Earle is one of our true poets of the moment, a man who can make an enduring song out of a headline.
Elvis Costello, who'd also been wandering around backstage, sang a pair of songs from National Ransom: "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" and "A Slow Drag With Josephine." Then everyone who'd performed crowded onto the stage, including Patty Griffin, and they sang "It's Not Too Late." They'd gone over time, and no wonder: a parade of stars-to-be and stars-that-are, buttressed by the best string players in the business. This was an only-at-Hardly-Strictly moment.
Over on the Arrow Stage was another example of the stunning array of talent at this festival. The surprisingly stripped-down band the Subdudes, a New Orleans club band, featured a squeeze box, acoustic guitar, bass and a small, tambourine-sized hand drum. The band played with a lot of soul, bringing more of that New Orleans gumbo to the party.
The Subdudes closed with a funky song called "Lord You Gotta Help Me Now." And indeed, the crowd walked away looking like it had received a little help from the lord.