Friday Oct 2, 2015

By Tim Simmers and Jaime Lockwood

On a warm San Francisco morning in Golden Gate Park, the screams and laughter of thousands of children mixed well with the twang of a banjo string and growl of a dobro. Arriving by yellow school bus, city bus, or simply marching like joyous ants down 30th Avenue from Presidio Middle School, the youngsters and their teachers congregated in the dappled sunlight of the Swan Stage for the opening of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 15.

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Each year of the festival, 6th grade students in San Francisco are exposed to an assortment of musical acts of different styles, turning the revelry into a top-notch educational opportunity. This year, a troupe of audacious performers called Cirkus Quirkus brought more energy and an interactive element to the morning. Contortionists, clowns and slapstick announcers led their young audience in group sound-making and coordinated dance moves.

Along with Cirkus Quirkus, the band Poor Man’s Whiskey welcomed the early morning crowd with a take on Lorde’s “Royals,” and later on had the kids breaking it down to Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” The band encouraged the audience to learn to play music so they too could be on stage and travel the world making people happy.

One notable group of attendees was from the Oak Hill School in San Anselmo, which serves autistic students, and brings their students to the kids’ performance every year. Teacher Michelle Barber shared that the students benefit from both being in nature and the music. One of her older students, Katie, was more than happy to share her thoughts as well. “I love it and I’m having a great time!” she exclaimed, proudly decked out in overalls and a “City Girl Gone Country” t-shirt.

As the show came to a close, it was clear the children left with wonderful memories of dancing under the eucalyptus trees to the sounds of live music.

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Many people walk a dirt trail to the Banjo Stage through the trees, and Dry Branch Fire Squad’s back-porch bluegrass was worth the hike. The band’s tight, ringing sound and high harmonies are pure old-fashioned bluegrass. And leader Ron Thomason is almost as good a stand-up comedian as he is on guitar and mandolin. The explosive mandolin sounds of Dry Branch make for terrific morning music that seems to be coming straight out of the Blue Ridge Mountains with some gospel spicing.

A former member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountains Boys, Thomason’s self-deprecating humor is a hoot between songs. He comes off as a hick and he’s charming. On playing with Bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, Thomason quipped: “Ralph was in his prime and I wasn’t.’’ But Thomason and his band are no joke. They’re one of the go-to groups for that old-fashioned bluegrass sound.

On the Arrow Stage at noon, Saintseneca made their Hardly Strictly debut headed by fiery-haired singer-songwriter Zac Little. The band opened their set with a big sound and fast tempo that pulled the audience out of their early day reverie. They then transitioned to a slower pace that demonstrated tight harmonies and their instrumental prowess. While Little sang the lead on most songs, female vocalist/instrumentalist Maryn Jones’s clear and sharp voice provided a unique touch to several.

The band’s sound – a mix of Americana country and folk punctuated with occasional hints of punk and grunge chords – filled the air and attracted a growing crowd. Soon, people sporting wildly colored hair, old hippies, and young techies skipping work were engrossed, tapping their feet, nodding their heads and stripping off their morning layers as the sun beat down.

Lee Ann Womack strutted out next on the Arrow Stage in her smartly checkered sundress and perfectly done hair. It was a noticeable departure from the general down home aesthetic of Hardly Strictly. Her Friday performance, however, proved she fit in just fine.

Womack has had an interesting journey to the Hardly Strictly stage. After initial success in Nashville, she refused to tow the line of the “new” country music industry and chose to stick to the more traditional country sound. Womack’s style channels greats like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but her voice most closely resembles Dolly Parton’s.

Womack’s audience included a higher-than-usual quotient of western shirts, cowboy hats and boots, reminding people that much of California is rural heartland – one where Womack’s traditional country themes of love lost in small towns and strength of faith deeply resonate. As she belted out songs like “The Way I’m Livin’” and “Send It On Down,” fans felt it deeply, swaying and singing along.

In addition to her own songs, Womack added in a honky-tonk classic – “You’re Still On My Mind” – made famous by both The Byrds and George Jones, which played well with both the older hippie crowd and country music diehards. As her set came to a close, Womack’s gracious manners and first-rate performance inspired the crowd to show their appreciation for a woman carrying on the country tradition.

Looking down the meadow over a sea of people, next up on the Banjo Stage was the Monophonics, and their high-energy soul and funk. From San Francisco, they bring a little psychedelic roots, too. A version of the Talking Heads “Psycho Killer” brought the dancers off the grass, propelled by the band’s deep bass and drum, and rich horns. Add a dose of Otis Redding-tinged vocals and a touch of reggae and the party was rolling.

Huge bubbles flew in the air as the honking Hammond Organ pushed the beat. One crowd favorite was a version of the old Sonny and Cher song “Bang, Bang.’’

As the sun got warmer and the sky got bluer, things hit a crescendo on the Banjo Stage with the arrival of the Mavericks. Dressed in white coats and ties and black western hats – one band member donned a salmon seersucker suit and an orange fedora – they bounced from Tex-Mex to Memphis soul, rockabilly and Cuban music. The honking horn section helped flavor the retro, `50s sensibility.

As the wind drifted in from the ocean, the band revealed more of its Latin influences and got everybody singing on the Cuban classic “Guantanamera. ’’ Lead singer Raul Malo referred back to his Cuban roots while commenting on recent improving U.S.-Cuban relations.

“I never thought the Cuban flag would be raised in America again, or the American flag would be raised in Cuba,” he said. “I never thought my dad would see it, and we celebrate.” The band then tore into a rocking version of “Twist and Shout” with hints of “La Bamba” as the crowd sang the words and many danced the bop, swing and everything in between.

“This is a pretty cool scene, and it’s amazing it’s happening on so many stages,” said Michael Funke, who grew up partly in the Bay Area but landed in Bend, Oregon as a `60s music DJ on public radio.

The Banjo Stage, which is graced with a beautiful banner depicting festival founder and funder, the late Warren Hellman, Hazel Dickens, Doc Watson and other bluegrass and country music greats, is like the hub of the festival. The Punch Brothers earned their spot there on Friday afternoon. Chris Thile, band front man and mandolin player extraordinaire, as well his remarkably talented bandmates, quickly engaged their audience with their musicianship, as well as their unique ability to weave traditional bluegrass together with classical music, creating a sound that few have heard.

Plowing away through tunes from their 2015 album, “The Phosphorescent Blues” and their 2012 album “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” the crowd boogied to songs like “Familiarity” and “This Girl.” Seizing the enthusiasm of a crowd stretching more than a football field deep, Thile captured the essence of the festival by exclaiming “There was never a more perfect place to be than right here! I challenge anyone to claim that any place is better than right here, right now, in this beautiful park!” The crowd roared its agreement (admittedly, any San Francisco crowd can be won over by acknowledging the beauty of their city). But there was genuine truth in this statement on this day.

In the height of the afternoon sun, hipster twenty-somethings got their groove on, mamas swayed with their babies, and old timers thanked the heavens that the bluegrass tradition is being carried on by the likes of the Punch Brothers.

Back through the woods on the Swan Stage, as the late afternoon sun mellowed, Peter Rowan opened with a heart-felt song to Hardly Strictly favorite Doc Watson. “It’s a Doc Watson kind of guitar picking morning,” Rowan sang while adding flat-picking riffs similar to what people heard from Doc here for many years here before he passed away.

Rowan then took the spirit south of the border with a beautiful tune with the refrain: “The Free Mexican Airforce is flying tonight.” The song was about harvesting sweet sensimelia and carried a lovely Mexican-style guitar melody and featured the terrific dobro picking of Mike Witcher. The song certainly extended an emotional nod to the wonderful music of rural Mexico.

Rowan is a treasure, loved for his link to trailblazer Bill Monroe’s band, which he once played in, and a philosophy of “no boundaries.” He has no qualms mixing in Buddhist chants and American Indian influences in his music.

With a black cowboy hat and black shirt, Rowan channeled native American vibes as he sung a haunting version of the bluegrass classic “Rain and Snow.” His brother Chris Rowan sang harmony, and the mournful sound of the fiddle lifted the song.

Rowan often takes traditional music a step further without leaving the richness of the original behind. Even if he uses drums on an old bluegrass classic like “In the Pines,” and picks up an electric guitar to play it. “I asked my captain for the time of day/he said he throwed his watch away/in the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine/and we shiver when the cold wind blows.”

The crowd looked like old-home week, yelping and yodeling and giving big hugs to friends they see every year at the festival. One woman broke out a hula-hoop and spread the crowd, and another woman started to launch a kite.

The last time slot of the day at Hardly Strictly is filled by larger-name acts on every stage, forcing fans to make some tough choices about who to see and how to split their time. Adding to the tough Friday night decisions this year was an all-star performance of the influential band Big Star’s third album, Sister Lovers.

For people at the Arrow Stage, largely middle-aged and older, there was no going anywhere else. The air was filled with chatty excitement before the set began, just as the sun dipped behind the trees and it cooled off. With fleeces and hats on and beers in hand, folks settled in for a much-anticipated performance.

Featuring Big Star member Jody Stephens and notable musicians such as the Kronos Quartet, Robyn Hitchcock and Robert Earl Keen, and local San Franciscans Chuck Prophet and Kelley Stoltz, the show was an expression of gratitude for Big Star’s music by many of the musicians we listen to today. Each performer brought their individual interpretation and style to the album’s songs. One constant throughout was the sound of the Kronos Quartet, providing the full orchestration that Big Star members Stephens and the late Alex Chilton originally intended for the project.

The crowd was enraptured. Groups of old friends with their arms around each other swayed and sang along. Couples slow danced and reminisced, and performers and audience alike were elevated in these moments as musical greatness was honored long after its due, giving everyone a chance to be part of what many would deem a historic performance of one of the greatest albums of its decade.

At about the same time on the Swan Stage, T-Bone Burnett rolled out a set of what he called “protest music.” It resembled an angry steam train hissing and smoking down the line. The band played dark and loud as Burnett aggressively strummed and picked his electric guitar. The show was full of attitude targeting the media, politicians, Google, ISIS and the status quo.

From guttural slide guitar to wild, moaning steel guitar and Burnett’s driving rhythm, the band created a wrathful sound of reality that resonated with the crowd. Dressed in black, the group’s set ranged from dirty rockabilly and surf to raunchy rock and roll and country. It was driving with biting lyrics.

“Maybe I’m not feeling well myself,” Burnett sneered, seemingly channeling Bob Dylan’s gruff vocals. Introducing a politically charged song about the “No Fly Zone” and U.S. war, Burnett scornfully jeered: “This is a story based on a true story that’s based on a lie.”

He later launched into a hard rocker with the refrain: “Somebody got to locate the bottom/Get us through the darkness of the status quo.” It was haunting, like a heavy movie, and Burnett’s had plenty of commercial success in producing music for film and television.

A woman named Double K sang along with Burnett, delivering remarkable, firey vocals over the top and under Burnett’s growling vocals. The tune “Everything is Free” lashed out at Google for putting up songs on the Internet whether artists get paid or not.

Michael Franti and Spearhead closed out the Banjo Stage Friday in a party atmosphere with dozens of beach balls launched into the crowd from the stage. Kids were invited on stage to sing along with six-foot-six tall Franti, who towered over the masses as he waded, mic in hand, deep into the people.

Franti’s positive vibes had thousands of people – young and old – on their feet dancing in place or weaving through the crowd. Spearhead kept the beat strong as Franti’s message of peace, love and solidarity wafted over the crowd.

Continue to Saturday »