San Francisco can be a very different place depending on what method of transportation you take to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It can be either a veritable eco-utopia of walkers, bicycles and joggers or a nightmare of gridlocked traffic. People who rode bikes or navigated the bus system enjoyed a healthy, parade-like stroll along JFK Blvd, which is closed to cars every weekend. A colorful array of people dotted the entrance to the park. Folks with hats, sunglasses, Mexican blankets, camping chairs and yoga mats mingled with people pushing strollers, pulling coolers and even someone pushing a cooler in a stroller. Those unfortunate enough to drive were seen circling Outer Richmond blocks for hours in hopes of catching a tiny sliver of curb. The enterprising Arragone Elementary School at 17th Street and Cabrillo opened their lot to festival-goers. A hefty walk and $25 later, it was pretty steep, but knowing the money went straight to the school's coffers made it OK. Hopefully by parking there a science class got some new bunsen burners.
At the 25th Street entrance, the familiar field of parked bicycles looked like a jagged technicolor quilt that stretched for hundreds of yards. When the SF Bike Coalition's free lot overflowed, cyclists locked their bikes to anything stationary, from park benches to tree limbs. You couldn't have picked a better Saturday for a breezy bike ride over to Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park, nor a better reason. This being the 10th anniversary, there are many familiar signposts that repeat attendees relish: the smell of kettle corn, the sound of banjos tuning up and the thousands of happy faces are a reminder that we're all excited and ready to experience a day of musical bliss absolutely free of advertising, free of pretension and free of charge.
The beauty of Hardly Strictly is that it's size allows multiple events to all happen at once while breaking down barriers between performers and fans. The proliference of tye-dyed Bonnaroo t-shirts and the large number of semi-pro old-time buskers implies that Hardly Strictly has become a staple of the jam band circuit, which stretches from Wakarusa in Arkansas to Tennessee's Bonnaroo to the Oregon County Fair. Notably absent this year, to absolutely no one's chagrin, was the US Navy's Blue Angels flight team. Past festivals have coincided with Fleet Week and these aeronautical acrobats would wreak havoc with fly-bys so loud and low it would nearly knock the hats off unsuspecting attendants. Whether it was scheduling karma or the foresight of festival planners, all in attendance greatly appreciated their absence.
Early-birds coming in through the main gate may have been unaware that the man plucking the banjo right there at the Porch stage with the Wronglers was none other than HSB benefactor Warren Hellman. His name would be praised throughout the weekend by grateful musicians and fans. He plays a mighty fine banjo, too.
Approaching the Rooster Stage, beams of sunlight filtered in through the trees and back-lit Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins, who still look as cool as they did playing together in the 1998 movie, Something About Mary. Richman's fans have long since learned not to expect hits from his Modern Lovers heyday like "Road Runner" or "Pablo Picasso". Instead, the New England transplant to Northern California sang, sometimes in French, about the glories of France and humanity's universal longing for affection. His final song featured an impressive solo on his nylon string guitar and autobiographical lyrics about how he would walk up and down the streets of Boston feeling sorry for himself because of a phone call from a love interest that never came.
Over at the Banjo Stage, The Carolina Chocolate Drops were breathing new life into old-time Negro string-band music. They utilized such traditional sound-makers as banjo, fiddle, resonator guitar, jug, bones, quills and even a kazoo. The very first all African American band to take the stage at The Grand Ole Opry, Carolina Chocolate Drops approach historical music from the 1930s with flawless detail, but they're also known to drop some anachronisms into the mix like human beat-box rhythms and twangy versions of contemporary pop covers. Their energetic take on Blu Cantrell's R&B hit from 2001, "Hit 'Em Up Style" had people dancing like they were at a nightclub. Front-woman Rhiannon Giddens even performed an incredible a capella Scots Gaelic traditional tune that she learned while researching music at Oberlin College. But the jewel of their set came in the form of "Snowden's Jig," an instrumental tune penned by a Negro string-band from northern Ohio in the 1800s. This version was stark and beautiful as the trio played it with only a fiddle, foot-stomps, hand-claps and castanets.
Over at the Star Stage, the legendary Hot Tuna (here in its electric form) kept the hippies and boomers on their feet with an early afternoon set of electrified, psychedelic blues. If there ever was a time to break out the tye dyed overalls, this was it. Led by rock 'n' roll hall of famer Jorma Kaukonen, Hot Tuna earned its "electric" tag this day with hard-stomping blues licks galore. To call San Francisco fall weather unpredictable is an understatement. Sunny skies and balmy air are typical this time of year but never a guarantee. Today, the sun was nowhere to be seen. Our famous Indian Summer took a break. Mercifully, the dense fog and biting wind that can whip through Golden Gate park decided to opt out as well, leaving us with an acceptable, overcast compromise. However, the lack of sunshine didn't stop a lone shirtless dude from flying his freak flag. Skinny, tan and with a full white beard, he twirled, bounced and gyrated through Hot Tuna's entire set. Clouds be damned, this guy's shirt never stood a chance.
On the Rooster stage, Texas troubadour Guy Clark and his longtime sidekick Verlon Thompson were rolling out their slice of the alt-country songbook with songs like "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "L.A. Freeway" (which Jerry Jeff Walker covered in his set at the Arrow Stage later.) Clark is a long-time festival favorite and he regaled the crowd with stories from his decades-long career, including the dubious origins of his pawn shop guitar.
Fountains of Wayne are the consummate power-pop band, and over at the Towers of Gold Stage they supplied an amped-up set of worn-in favorites, new tunes from an upcoming record, and some surprises. Agile enough to shift from country-fied numbers to souped-up rockers, they covered a lot of musical territory while still retaining their own personality. If there was a standout in the set, it would be the band's breakout hit, "Stacy's Mom," which got many up on their feet, dancing and singing along. They ended the set with an extended medley, seemingly covering the entirety of '70s AM rock: ZZ Top, Steve Miller Band, Joe Walsh and a handful of others blended together seamlessly.
On the Rooster Stage, the Songwriters Circle featuring Steve Earle, David Olney, Robert Earl Keen and John Doe displayed the kind of camaraderie that the festival is known for. Olney filled in for the absent Justin Townes Earle and stole the show, in some viewers' estimation. The ubiquitous Earle kicked things off with "Goodbye Guitar Town," followed by Olney presenting "the only (Titanic) song from the iceberg's point of view: Come to Me, Titanic." Keen offered "Shades of Gray," a tale of excessive partying and mischief while Doe, the former frontman of the L.A. punk band X, allowed that he wasn't "feeling like a tiger today." He then launched into "Tiger, Tiger" while his former band-mate Exene Cervenka wrapped up her set on the Porch Stage. Earle introduced a new song called "God Is God," a song he said he'd written for Joan Baez, who was warming up on the Banjo Stage right about then. Emcee Earle, rarely at a loss for words, talked about how "the survival of New Orleans is essential if we're going to continue to contribute anything to the culture... New Orleans is the heart of America." Before he launched into "This City Won't Wash Away," he urged the crowd to make it to the Crescent City for late April's Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Fans at the massive Banjo stage were treated to a surprise appearance by Hellman and SF mayor Gavin Newsome after Joan Baez' moving set. They weren't playing banjos though, they were there to announce a $75,000 gift Hellman was donating to the park for upgrading the irrigation system at Speedway Meadow. Newsome responded in kind by issuing a proclamation honoring Hazel Dickens and Emmylou Harris, who have both been cornerstones of the festival since it's inception. Hellman's gift goes a long way toward reversing some of the wear and tear the massive festival causes in the park. The festival has made great strides toward ecological consciousness this year with most vendors using biodegradable cups and forks and trash cans labeled: Recycling, Compost and Landfill.
The crowd for Conor Oberst, although at the same stage that Hot Tuna had played just a few hours earlier, was decidedly younger and, ironically, more subdued. There was the handsome couple, dressed in matching plaid shirts, drinking wine and lazily reading the New York Times. A few blankets away, a woman sat with a copy of the New Yorker at her side. Closer to the stage, fans stood and danced, treating the set like a proper concert. Oberst has been touring recently with the Felice Brothers as his backing band and he put them through the paces, moving effortlessly from indie folk to more electrified country rockers. Drawing from a deep catalogue that included songs from his well loved band Bright Eyes as well as more recent work with the Mystic Valley band, Oberst and band delivered the goods to the fans up front, while also appeasing the casual listeners in the back.
Over at the Arrow Stage, former Commander Cody guitarist Bill Kirchen hung out with Kinky Friedman backstage as Jerry Jeff Walker opened up with a brisk Western swing instrumental followed by Clark's "L.A. Freeway." He wasted little time getting to his immortal "Mr. Bojangles" as he wended his way through his road-tested good-time set with odes such as "Sangria Wine" or "Navajo Rug" "the perfect cowboy song," he called it. Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy, made a welcome return to the festival, this time backed by the Cairo Gang featuring upright bass, drums, electric guitar and a female vocalist. Performers often remark on the Golden Gate Park setting, California in general or their gratitude to sponsor Hellman, but balding, bearded and dressed in black, Oldham took it a bit further, urging the crowd to export San Francisco's mellow vibes to less hip parts of the country: "Iowa! Indiana!" he exhorted the audience. Oldham's loopy stage presence had some fans wondering about his sanity but the rollicking precision of the Cairo Gang was indisputable.
On the tiny Porch Stage, UK garage legend Holly Golightly showed her country side to an appreciative, vintage-clad audience. Golightly earned her garage rock pedigree fronting the all-girl garage group the Headcoatees and has recorded songs with the White Stripes, but today she was pure old-time country with great versions of standards like "Jack O' Diamonds."
By the time Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings took the stage, there were so many people packed on the lawn in front of the Banjo Stage that you had to wonder if they were going to be quiet enough to hear the hushed Americana duo. But they loved her, as revealed by their reverent silence during the set, though when Gillian sang, "I wish I was in 'Frisco with a brand new pair of shoes," the crowd was hooting and hollering, getting an ear-to-ear grin out of Welch. But nobody was smiling as much as Conor Oberst who took the stage and joined them on a gorgeous rendition of "Lua," a popular number from Oberst's tenure with Bright Eyes. When Welch and Rawlins, her musical partner of over 20 years, returned to their set, you couldn't help but notice the pure congruence they share in everything; their bodies swayed in sync and their harmonies were as close as those of siblings. Their love for their fans was evident in a setlist of popular favorites. "My First Lover" from 2001's Time (The Revelator) had the crowd swooning, as did a haunting version of "Elvis Presley Blues" from the same album. They even took on the more upbeat "It's Too Easy" from Dave's 2009 bluegrass-flavored solo outing A Friend of a Friend, reminding us that, until 2004, this festival had been called Strictly Bluegrass. The couple brought Emmylou Harris onstage for "Don't Leave Nobody but the Baby," which the two women had sung together on the "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. They diverged from their own material for Bob Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately" and a version of "This Land Is Your Land".
On the distant Towers of Gold stage, Jackie Greene flaunted his jam-rock pedigree with a dizzying collection of funky, hard-driving originals that referenced everyone from Neal Young to Al Green. A local who's known for his live gigs with the Mother Hips, Further and Government Mule, Greene switched effortlessly from electric guitar to Fender Rhodes piano to acoustic, providing a buoyant collection of rockers and ballads as the sun began to descend behind the fog bank. The crowd was clearly familiar with his work as many people sung along and danced with abandon.
With Steve Earle and the Dukes rocking hard at the Banjo Stage on one side of JFK Drive, and Robert Earl Keen getting set to do the same at the Rooster Stage on the other side, an impressed fan flagged down Carolina Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons as he made his way backstage. Before long, Flemons was demonstrating how to play the bones and talking about the recent DVD release of the Howard Armstrong documentary "Louie Bluie." A few minutes later, the resonator guitar was out of its case, and the subject had turned to bluesman Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas. The small gathering was treated to half a dozen songs, ranging from Thomas' "Allow Me One More Chance" to the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," in response to one very demanding Fab Four fan. Back at the Towers of Gold Stage, Richard Thompson led his band through a surprisingly rousing set. Thompson first experienced fame as the guitarist for UK folk revivalists Fairport Convention, who were one of the first groups to mix traditional British folk music with rock instruments. He's since become a lauded songwriter in his own right. With his battered Stratocaster in a finish so bright blue it looked illuminated even hundreds of yards away, he unleashed a flurry of licks that brought many to their feet.
As Steve Earle And The Dukes sauntered on stage with their instruments in tow, the sun was disappearing while an Autumn wind blew in. But the crowd was ready for it, donning layers of fall-themed threads while many others decided to keep warm by dancing, which wasn't too difficult considering that Earle and Co. were blasting out some crunchy country rock through vintage tube amplifiers. Their country rock got much twangier on a barn-burning version of the traditional blues song, "I Know You Rider," recalling moments of Gram Parsons-era Flying Burrito Brothers. The only way they could possibly top all this was to strip everything down to a bluegrass based formation of the Dukes and lead a panoramic sing-along to the Woody Guthrie Staple, "This Land Is Your Land." The end of Earle's set was closer in spirit to Jimi Hendrix than Woody Guthrie though as Earle unleashed peals of feedback over a driving beat.
By the time that Earle left the stage, it was dark, though the chill was gone from the air. On the nearby Rooster Stage, Robert Earl Keen's party was going full-tilt, with an extended "I Know You Rider" and "The Road Goes On Forever," topped off with "Farm Fresh Onions." Crowds of people danced in the street, blending with the people leaving Earle's set and curious onlookers who were attracted by Keen's funky beats. Even at the late hour, people were energized and unified by the incredible diversity and virtuosity which has become a hallmark of the Hardly Strictly experience.