Friday Sep 30, 2016

By Tim Simmers

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 16 Kicked off with a spirited tradition on a bright day in Golden Gate Park, as sixth graders from all over San Francisco poured into the meadow for the festival’s opening. They laughed, danced and sang to Poor Man’s Whiskey playing popular songs in a bluegrass style and marveled at the magicians, sword swallowers and clowns from Circus Quirkus.


Kids in attendance for Friday morning! Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski.

Yellow school buses lined the road to the Swan Stage as high-pitched voices yelled and cheered. The youngsters stomped their feet in glee as they played hookie from school and romped on the grass. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee even appeared, reminding students of the gift of Hardly Strictly given by the late Warren Hellman and his family.

Bill Kirchen and Austin de Lone launched the noon show at the Banjo Stage with a honky tonk sound made for the road. Kirchen’s song “Hillbilly Truck Drivin’ Man” included the cry of a pedal steel guitar, some Hank Williams-style yodeling and Kirchen’s truck driving licks on his telecaster guitar.

Kirchen co-founded Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen in the late `60s, and has become a guitar picking legend since that band’s hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” De Lone started Eggs Over Easy, the pioneers of British pub rock.

Kirchen invited Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore from the Flatlanders to join him on stage for a highlight song, Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a Changing.” On the anthem by the new Nobel Prize winner, Kirchen mimicked Dylan’s snarling vocals of the old days. He also floated a few Jerry Garcia-style licks into the mix as thousands of people sang along with the words.

Kirchen’s country rock brought plenty of cowboy hats to Hellman Meadow, many of them on young fans who yelped and danced to his lively sound. For laughs, Kirchen trotted out a honky tonk song with a whistling solo.

Across the meadow at the Arrow Stage, Texas-bred Jamestown Revival delivered solid folk rock, with a good measure of country and blues. They mix their Austin roots with a California flavor from their Los Angeles base.

California, don’t even know you/

You taken me from my home/

Someday I’ll be home/

With a cast-iron soul/

The thumping drums, rough-edge guitar feedback and vocal twang had the crowd up and dancing.

Next up on the Banjo Stage saw fast-rising songwriter Valerie June strap on her acoustic guitar and declare: “We’re gonna bring you some Newport Folk energy.”

June’s laid back attitude on “Running on Tennessee Time” and her southern twang brought a calm to the crowd. Backed up by a standup bass and fiddle, June exuded a Carter Family, down-home musical flavor. Her vocals ran from pretty to dreamy and raw. She pulls inspiration from a way gone era, and that comforted veteran Hardly Strictly fans who crave the old timey and bluegrass sound.

June’s big heart and guts won over gospel/soul icon Mavis Staples, who praised June later in the day while singing a song June wrote for her called “Living on a high Note.”

Walking across the grass, there was the typical HSB patchwork of people sprawled out on colorful blankets. They tended to their babies and ate picnic lunches. Little kids tossed balls and Frisbees to their fathers.

From a distance on the Arrow stage, the rousing female chorus of the Oakland School for the Arts filled the air. They were singing with the North Carolina rock band Delta Rae, which included siblings Eric, Ian and Brittany Holljes, and Bay Area bred Elizabeth Hopkins.

The pure vocals of the chorus added a deep richness to the group’s Southern sound. Delta Rae served up a range of soulful, moody rock and pop music, and the younger crowd loved it.

Further down the meadow at the Bandwagon Stage, singer and fiddler Heidi Clare and her guest Ron Thomason of the Dry Branch Fire Squad treated the small crowd to some old-time back porch music.

Clare pogoed up and down, sawed off fiddle notes and sang in her earthy voice. Dressed in a long fringe cowgirl dress, Clare even clogged to the music at times. Standing on a stage made from an old-fashioned trailer, Clare sang a touching song called “In Here for You.” It was inspired by her work with music and seniors and the elderly in San Francisco (see

Thomason, switching from mandolin to old-time guitar picking, emotionally moved the small crowd with a tearjerker called “A Mother’s Smile.”

Over the hill and through the eucalyptus trees at the Swan Stage Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas electrified the crowd. Hernandez brought her spunkiness and rap from Detroit by way of Cuba. She danced with abandon and carried a brightness and sense of humor to the stage. She seemed to carry the spirit of Detroit’s rebirth with her and the audience ate it up. As in years past, HSB continued to attract people from all over. Johanna Main of San Francisco brought her mother from Ireland here six years ago when her daughter was only three weeks old. “Now my mom comes from Ireland every year for the festival,” Main said.


Many stages to choose from. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski.

Part of the thrill of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is hiking up a dirt path through the trees in Golden Gate Park and arriving at a musical stage where Grammy-winning songwriter Shawn Colvin strummed her guitar and sang with Steve Earle. People eagerly applauded their jangly acoustic guitars. They surprised the crowd with the classic “Tobacco Road” as the afternoon sky turned orange. Their harmonies weaved together in “Your Right, I’m Wrong,” and they played a lively version the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Suzie.”

At the Swan Stage Dry Branch Fire Squad turned up the burner with some stellar bluegrass. Telling jokes and stories about his mentor, the late Ralph Stanley, Dry Branch founder Ron Thomason strummed a beautiful Stanley favorite called “How Mountain Girls can Love.” With high mountain harmonies and tasty banjo and mandolin solos pumping up the crowd, the band cut into a fast, driving version of “John Henry.” “Nobody plays it 180 beats a minute,” laughed Thomason.

Heidi Clare sat in with her fiddle, playing bluegrass notes that had a whiff of chickens clucking in the barnyard. Clare then let her feet do the work, showing off her mountain clogging style.

Late afternoon crowds grew as the breeze whistled at the Banjo Stage, but nobody complained. “I think this whole festival is fantastic,” said Claudia Hampe of Mill Valley. “I’ve been here every year. I just love Warren Hellman.”

People in the crowd raised flags for friends who gather every year. The sun inched down as everyone awaited Boz Scaggs. They stood in anticipation of the smooth funk and soul man’s magic. The band was dressed in black, and Boz had some royal blue in his sleeves.

The audience started swinging as the band broke into an Allen Toussaint song about his hometown, New Orleans. Horns howled, the rhythm section hit the groove and ladies started dancing to that low-down New Orleans feel. Boz Scaggs’ moaning guitar tone brought to mind his popular sound of the `70s.

Scaggs featured hits like “Lido Shuffle” and “Georgia,” and grooved on Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About.” He explored the haunts and corners of San Francisco’s Mission District on “The Last Tango on 16th Street,” a song by his harmonica playing friend Applejack.

Scaggs’ soulful voice fit well the Texas and Louisiana sounds that shaped his musical style. To close the set he reached back to his `50s roots for a jivey Fats Domino song, “I’m Sick and Tired of Foolin’ Around with You.”

Towering gospel/soul singer Mavis Staples followed Scaggs, and let the crowd know how happy she was to be at Hardly Strictly: “I’ll tell you this is my favorite festival. I really come alive here… you all are just fired up.” She looked in awe at the huge crowd before her as seagulls flew overhead on their way to the ocean.


“I’ll tell you this is my favorite festival. I really come alive here… you all are just fired up.” – Mavis Staples. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski.

She caressed the audience with her wise spirit and wit. “We come here to bring joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations, and we want you to feel good,” she slowly drawled.

Her version of the Staples Singers tune “Respect Yourself” (written by Luther Ingram & Mack Rice and famously covered by Aaron Neville) carried the levity of going to church or a religious meeting. Her sincere spiritual essence fills up her voice and flows to everybody.

She proudly introduced the deeply moving gospel song “March the Freedom Highway” and stunned the crowd with it. “My daddy Pop Staples wrote that song in 1962. He wrote it for the March from Selma, and I was there. And I’m still here. I’m a soldier.” There weren’t many dry eyes in the meadow as she sang the chorus with determination: “March the Freedom Highway/and I won’t turn around.”

“We’re going to make it. Can you feel it in your bones?” she cried. “Change is coming.”

The soulful band kicked in with the song “I Know a Place… I’ll take you there,” and the audience went along for the joyous ride singing the words with Mavis.

Read other reports: Saturday » | Sunday »