Friday, Oct 6, 2017

By Sarah Bardeen and Tim Simmers

The weather for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2017 felt like it arrived on the wings of an angel. The late Warren Hellman himself couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous three days for his bluegrass-and-everything-else festival.

The walk through the woods in Golden Gate Park, up and down dirt trails to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2017, was peaceful – just like the smell of eucalyptus and the dust of Indian summer.

Grass, blankets, family, & friends at #HSB17. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski.

In the early morning, on the grassy fields of Hellman Hollow, frisbees were flying through the air. People laid out colorful blankets and lawn chairs in the meadow named after festival founder Warren Hellman.

And people were ready to feel good. “It’s just been a rough week,” said one woman in the crowd. “There are so many hard things happening in the world; sometimes you just need a break.”

She got it, in spades.

Sunshine warmed the calm morning, as Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands blended banjo, fiddle and mandolin on their laid-back hillbilly sound. Dancers waltzed in the grass just after noon at the Banjo Stage.

“We’re all immigrants if we go back far enough,” Lewis told the crowd before introducing her original song about refugees. She sang it slow and serene. Then she sang an old song about young love, her smooth, sustained voice carrying a back porch feel, mixing with the babbling brook sound of the mandolin.

A slow rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” woke the crowd. “Love is a burning thing,” came the lyrics. People knew what was coming, and they sang along. Rich harmonies added depth to the song. Later, Tom Rosen cut loose with some old-time Kentucky fiddling on “Are You Waiting Just for Me My Little Darling” as the Banjo Stage’s opening set wound down at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2017.

Over at the Rooster Stage, Conor Oberst’s curated stage started the day off with Mega Bog, a buzzy band out of Seattle and Brooklyn whom Pitchfork has called “malleable.” That’s a compliment. Singer Erin Birgy sounds like a cross between Francoise Hardy and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, with a side of Joni Mitchell. Her crystalline voice anchored songs that played deftly with jazz and psychedelic music, all through a cool blue filter with jagged edges of occasional

Birgy’s opening number was a cover of Ivor Cutler’s “Women of the World,” and it echoed the feel of the political moment. “Women of the world,” she sang, “take over/Because if you don’t/the world will come to an end. And we haven’t got long.” As she repeated the lyrics like an incantation, over an encompassing drone, people began to sit up and take notice. Some women started to applaud.

Like every performer, Birgy seemed a bit awed by the day’s beauty. “Well, here we are in San Francisco… it’s really beautiful. It smells really good.” The meadow was still in shade, which felt appropriate for this cool-toned music.

Across the long meadow from the Banjo Stage sat the Bandwagon Stage, a quaint little trailer topped off with two classic RCA Victor gold horns on the roof.

The Bandwagon stage consists of a retrofitted Airstream, rigged for live performances. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski.

Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, in from upstate New York on their first trip to Hardly Strictly, delivered some early mountain string music. They did it with a stripped-down trio of guitar, fiddle and banjo. At times they sang a cappella.

The homey trailer stage sat in front of one of the biggest eucalyptus trees in the park. Sun umbrellas started rising up as Alison de Groot’s old-time claw-hammer banjo rang out in the song “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” Band founder Bruce Molsky sawed off some biting fiddle licks and sang harmony with fiery guitarist Stash Wyslouch, a genre-bending pioneer on the six-string.

The band played raw, taking the crowd “back to the farm” with the song “Hog Trot Reel.” The intimate stage and couple hundred people provided a stark but satisfying contrast to the towering Banjo Stage across the meadow.

Back at the Rooster Stage, Jesse Harris was serenading a crowd that was now bathed in sunlight. Harris might be best known as the guy who penned “Don’t Know Why,” which Norah Jones made a hit, but the man did not exhaust his talent on that one song. Friday’s set showed why Harris has a dedicated and growing following – and why more artists are covering his songs. His impressive three-piece band conjured up strains of African guitar and Brazil, but the power lay in Harris’ sharp, witty songwriting.

Songs like “Forget It Happened This Way” and “Taking My Time” felt both emotional and clever. Harris’ voice is a bit compressed, but he’s a solid songwriter. There were times when his songs seemed to be calling out for a bigger band or another artist to interpret them.

But when he played a new instrumental from a new, as-yet-unreleased album the band just recorded in Lisbon, he conjured an important Hardly Strictly realization: Jesse Harris is a darn good picker.

The hot sun was now fully on the meadow, and looking out across it you could see a lot of red necks (literally) in the making. A man in a SF Department of Public Works suit came by with a dripping bag full of ice-cold beers. Two women looked at each other, and then after him. “Was that for real?” asked one.

Next up on the cozy Bandwagon stage was local soul singer/songwriter/guitarist Tracy Blackman. She cooked up a swampy soul and rhythm and blues stew, complimented by a fat bass sound. Blackman played sparse but well-accented soul with color and feeling.

With big sunglasses, large round earrings, a full head of coffee-colored hair and a rusty black and red leather vest, Blackman had stage presence. Her “don’t rush me” soul and R&B attitude carried the day. She sang Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma” with heart and grit, helped along by strong backup vocals and tasty slide guitar.

Blackman wove in originals with covers, such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head,” with a moving take on the original Stevie Nicks vocal. The crowd warmly clapped and relaxed into the music. Kudisan Kai’s robust backup singing added richness, and Jimmy Dillon’s swampy guitar complimented Eric McCann’s rock bottom bass.

Blackman cracked the crowd up with an original song, “She’s Gotta Have It,” that could have been about a love affair or an addiction. Actually, she said, “I wrote this song while I was weaning my daughter.” She got a big laugh out of the audience.

Big Thief had taken over at the Rooster Stage. Singer Adrianne Lenker is a slight woman with dark brown hair in a pixie haircut in wide-legged jeans that will be all the rage in about six minutes. The hip kids had arrived by now, and they filled the meadow, standing to get a better look at the Brooklyn band. Lenker has a grave,
slightly shy stage presence, but on songs like “Mary,” she created a lovely eerie twinning of her guitar and voice that felt true to the festival’s spirit – though she also broke out into a little Pixies-esque guitar squall when needed.

Over the hill at the Swan Stage, Chuck Prophet played jangly rock’n’roll in a greasy San Francisco style. Playing with his band the Mission Express, Prophet isn’t one to let musical boundaries hamper his sound. Rock, funk, punk, country – you name it, he plays it, usually with an edge and a dab of humor.

Chuck Prophet’s guitar competes with the Blue Angels flying overhead. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski. (watch archive)

He’s all for original music, but isn’t locked into it, like when he cut into “Stuck in Lodi” from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Prophet’s got the California sound down, and he knows a classic like “Lodi” rouses a crowd.

His solid rhythm section works well with his raunchy slide guitar. Prophet engages with the audience and has fun. He doesn’t care when the distortion on his guitar has to compete with the Blue Angels flying over. He goes back to his tremolo and rolling notes, or plays some surf riffs.

“The beautiful thing about baseball and rock’n’roll is nobody knows what’s going to happen next,” Prophet told the crowd. That prompted a song about Willie Mays – “the greatest center fielder of all time.”

Of course, he couldn’t help but slip briefly into political mode: “In 2016, I lost any illusions of democracy in this country. “

Politics was front and center at the Banjo Stage with Billy Bragg, who proved to be Friday’s political conscience. Never one to shy away from an issue, Bragg brought something essential to Hardly Strictly: storytelling. He’s a troubadour, telling stories as much as he’s singing songs.

He took time out to acknowledge Tom Petty’s passing: “We were all shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Tom Petty,” he said. And then he sang a rewritten version of the classic Bob Dylan chestnut “The Times They Are A-Changing” – “back.”

“This is what we needed,” said one woman in the crowd. “This is a total change.”

“We live in a time where there seems to be a war on empathy. As a musician, my currency is empathy.” – Billy Bragg. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski. (watch archive)

Bragg touched on issues like immigration, Syria and climate change. “We will be judged by our children and children’s children,” he said, sounding a clarion call for more action, before singing a passionate cover of the Anais Mitchell’s strange and miraculous “Why We Build the Wall,” with its chilling, prescient line “We build
the wall to keep us free.”

“We live in a time where there seems to be a war on empathy,” said Bragg. “As a musician, my currency is empathy. Why are they so scared of compassion?” The crowd listened intently. “Let’s finish with a song of solidarity,” he said, before ending with “There is Power in a Union.”

Meanwhile Foy Vance, the charming singer from Northern Ireland, was holding the fort at the Bandwagon. They must put something in the water up in Northern Ireland, because Vance got a solid helping of the gruff soul that a certain fellow countryman has in spades. (Van Morrison, anyone?) He sang a cappella and owned it in songs like “Shed a Little Light.”

He tried to lead the crowd in slightly complicated sing-alongs, and lost us. But he was so charming – “It would be beautiful if you could sing along with me,” he said in that brogue – that we kept trying. When the singing petered out, he chose a good conversation topic: “What about Warren?” The crowd gave an emotive cheer. “God
rest him.” Vance paused. “He’s still here, isn’t he?” he said, looking around.

Seun Kuti brought a bit of big-time show-biz and life to the Friday show. The Swan Stage was packed with band members, and the band warmed up before he came onstage – James Brown-like – with a tight instrumental number with interlocking rhythms and smoking-hot horns. The entire crowd was on their feet within 30 seconds of the band taking the stage. The hot sun had eased off, and it was finally a manageable temperature.

Kuti came out, slim and tall, a wiry guy just like his father Fela in a striking green and blue jumpsuit. He opened up with one of his father’s songs, “Expensive Shit,” “as a sign of respect,” he said. It’s not a bad song to play in the epicenter of consumer culture that is America, and the crowd loved it. The band felt like it was firing on all cylinders, but in a controlled way – there was always more power lurking. “Only the African dream can build the motherland of tomorrow,” he told the crowd, decrying the way the American dream had been “imposed on us Africans.” Just next to Kuti, a band member just played a gourd and knocked it out of the park. The lone backup singer had the most incredible control of her posterior this side of Big Freedia.

Four songs in, the band had become fierce and furious. Kuti commanded us to “get down.” Audre Lorde said you couldn’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, but whatever Kuti and band were doing with electric guitar and saxophone, it felt damn near revolution.

Back at the Banjo Stage, things were more relaxing than revolutionary as the Bo-Keys, featuring Percy Wiggins and Don Bryant, started playing. With a wailing horn section, a thumping bass, stellar organ, and funky, understated guitar, this group represents the lively spirit of Memphis soul.

In a red coat, black pants and dark fedora, Percy Wiggins walked on stage with a purpose. The late afternoon weather was warm and pleasant. Wiggins was honest and real. He kicked into “Now I See the Writing on the Wall,” and did it with feeling. The band took its time. The atmospheric organ sound blended with beefy back drums and bass, delivering the deep grooves and wealth of emotions at the style’s core.

Overhead, a flock of geese flew over, looking a bit like the Blue Angels, but much slower, elegant and quiet.

“We always heard how cool this festival was, and it is,” said band leader and bass player Scott Bomar. With Bomar on bass and Bo-Keys elder statesman Howard Grines on drums, the crowd got a taste of the rhythm that helped drive legendary Stax Records back in the day. The soul energy brought real spirit to the big meadow. Life may be in disarray, but love’s always at the forefront with this Memphis crew.

Wiggins’ raspy voice went into story-telling mode. “I learned My Lesson in Love” was a confessional. “It’s for both the men and ladies,” he noted.

Don Bryant shared lead duty with Percy Wiggins, fronting the Bo-Keys and their legendary Stax Records sound. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski. (watch archive)

Straight talk about love and people hit home again when Don Bryant fronted the band for the second half of the set. “All my friends think I’m doing fine,” he sang in his gutsy voice. “But all I got in my pocket is a nickel and a nail.”

The keyboard, bass and drums meshed like a machine. Bryant’s unique, smooth tone and emotion spelled Memphis Soul. His humble, honest voice connected with the crowd. “Feelin’ alright?” he called out. “Let me see you wave your hands in the air.”

He delivered some sweet, touching vocals on songs he penned, including “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me.” Dressed in a silver satin coat and black pants, Bryant offered a clinic on the brighter side of aging, in which life doesn’t rob all your energy.

Of course, youth doesn’t hurt either. At the Rooster Stage, the Swedish sisters First Aid Kit played to a packed meadow, letting their astral close harmonies do all the work in the gorgeous late afternoon sun. “Stay Gold” felt perfect in the moment, and “Emmylou” was a certified highlight that had the whole crowd singing along.

“Write something beautiful,” said a tall, skinny, long-haired young man passing by as one writer closed her notebook. “They’re so melodic,” said one woman in from Novato. “Their voices are beautiful.”

On the Banjo Stage, T Bone Burnett turned the tables on fans expecting his brand of earthy rock and Americana style. He had his experimental hat on, delivering stream-of-consciousness spoken word pieces – the debut of an avant garde opera called “The Invisible Light.”

The man himself was center stage, tall in a black suit like an undertaker, with a fall of white hair flopping in his face. He was flanked by two singers, one male, one female, both striking to look at – and mainly striking poses, as they were almost never called upon to sing.

Many in the crowd chose to explore other stages before the festival ended as he played, but those who stayed were rapt – and rewarded. It wasn’t easy listening – a synthesizer spelled doom in every corrosive sound combination it could come up with, while the pounding, simplistic rhythms were nearly maddening. But the music spoke to a dystopian vision of this moment in the world. The music often came off as monotone and monochrome, but Burnett clearly has something to say: “The machine has gone mad in its pursuit of perfection. It doesn’t know the difference between creation and destruction.”

Burnett spoke of misogyny, vertigo and the devil, and someone from the crowd said, “Did Dr. Strangelove arrive?”

It was about as far from old-timey music as you could get – instead of straightforward feelings, it was filled with cryptic storytelling. But its messages resonated. “It takes more courage to love than to hate,” Burnett repeated in one song. And later, he sang/spoke: “Let’s make a future we all want to live. Let’s make a past we don’t
have to forgive. Be not afraid.”

These words have a lot of meaning right now, and those who stayed cheered them heartily. Burnett seemed grateful for the attentiveness of those who stayed.

“I know this was a strange benediction,” said Burnett at the end, “but we made it with all love.” And that’s about as Hardly Strictly as you can get.

As daylight started to fade, swarms of people at the Rooster Stage seemed electrified, buzzing. Conor Oberst, the passionate electric folk rocker, strummed his guitar with rage and let his emotions fly. Great songwriting, including heavy dialog, offered the crowd plenty to chew on.

With his quivering voice and conversational lyrics, Oberst gripped the audience. He plays simple, crashing acoustic guitar, beating it like a percussive instrument. When the jam explodes, he often bounds toward the drummer, banging on his guitar to drive the groove.

He also traded harmonies with Johanna and Klara Soderberg of First Aid Kit. They joined him as guests on a few songs, and helped the revered songwriter make an even tighter connection with the crowd. Oberst always leaves angst and emotions on the table, not to mention insight and political awareness.

Conor Oberst was joined by First Aid Kit, Jesse Harris and The Felice Brothers to close out the day at Rooster Stage.

His shaking voice on “Simple in the Moonlight” left him vulnerable, like a poet with a dramatic song. When the feedback went wild, he left his guitar on an amp, letting it scream into ferocious darkness. His dark and sensitive lyrics drew the crowd in with him.

“Why you make me fall in love with you,” he sang. “The last time I dropped you off at LAX, I just stood up and kissed you on your forehead.”

A Hardly Strictly regular, Oberst humbly thanked the festival for inviting him back every year. He closed out the Rooster Stage show on Friday night with a cover of “Walls (Circus)” by Tom Petty.

He invited back the First Aid Kit singers back onstage, as well Grammy Award-winning songwriter Jesse Harris and the Felice Brothers to help him sing Petty’s song with gusto. In the sky, bats from the woods flew overhead at dusk as the band wailed a tribute to Petty.

“After that crazy stuff in Vegas, and saying goodbye to Tom Petty, it was really a broken-hearted week for music,” Oberst said. “But we need these gatherings to be nourished in our souls. Glad some sick ass with a machine gun didn’t make you stay away.”

Read other reports: Saturday » | Sunday »