Sunday, Oct 8, 2017
By Meghan Stevenson, Tim Simmers and Mike Alexis
A small crowd had assembled at the Rooster Stage on this sunny cool Sunday morning. “How are y’all doing this bright and early? You know you should be in bed or in church” is how Laura Rogers of The Secret Sisters began her charming narration between very traditional country songs with incredible harmonies and story-driven lyrics. Starting with “Tennessee River Runs Low,” you could hear the sisters (Lydia, younger; and Laura, older) in perfect sync all the way out to JFK Drive.
As explained by Laura between songs, The Secret Sisters went through a lot of personal and professional strife between their second and third albums—and it shows. The duo appeared for the first time at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2010 on the Rooster Stage with their former producer, T. Bone Burnett. But, with the help of fellow 2017 Hardly Strictly artist Brandi Carlile (who produced their third album) The Secret Sisters have noticeably expanded and improved upon their sound. The second song in their set, “Black and Blue” showed Carlile’s influence by combining lyrics about heartbreak and disappointing relationships with a bouncy rhythm. Sitting out in the crowd, or walking along the road on the way to one of the other stages, if you weren’t listening closely, you might have assumed that this was a happy song. But, like so many other country and bluegrass songs, the lyrics were expressing exactly the opposite sentiment.
For two sisters who “never dreamed country music would take us this far,” Laura and Lydia Rogers have created a sound that is reminiscent of traditional country from the ‘50s and ‘60s, but that sounds modern and contemporary. Much like fellow HSB artist Jamey Johnson, The Secret Sisters manage to merge country, bluegrass, and what used to be called alt-country into a sound that’s radically different from what’s on country radio yet delightful to fans that love the genre. As one person in the crowd, Rebecca Seligstein of San Francisco, said, “I’m really glad my friend told me to attend this show. The Secret Sisters are my new favorite for sure.”
Including murder ballads (“Mississippi”), a tribute to their home state of Alabama (“King Cotton”) and the striking title track from their third album (“You Don’t Own Me Anymore”) the Sunday morning set from the Secret Sisters was a perfect way to start the last day of the festival. Before closing the set with “Tonight You Belong to Me” Laura thanked the crowd, saying “We all need this kind of place where we can join each other safely in the fight for love and good and positivity.” The crowd responded with a standing ovation.
The Swan Stage lawn was packed and ready for Randy Newman at this early hour of half past noon. Even with the Blue Angels buzzing above, they couldn’t compete with this legendary songwriter, alone at his grand piano.
Newman’s set was thoroughly crowd-pleasing as he dipped into his vast catalog and pulled out well known gems like “Short People” and “It’s a Jungle Out There,” as well as a few new ones, including the political and satirical “Putin” his from his stellar new album Dark Matter.
Tom Jones and Joe Cocker may have made “You Can Leave Your Hat On” bonafide hits, but hearing the song straight from the source and stripped to its essence is a real treat.
Newman talked about “Old gray dudes from the ‘60s taking up too much space in the touring circuit” before launching into the biting “I’m Dead, (But I Don’t Know It).” Clearly a self-effacing jab at his own longevity, but judging by the enthusiasm and size of the crowd, there is definitely a demand for this elder statesman’s timeless music.
After Newman’s set, the emcee from the stage asked that if there was a need to evacuate, for us to calmly walk out towards Fulton and 30th – a sobering reminder of what happened in Las Vegas just one week prior, but also a reminder that collectively we will not be deterred or afraid.
“Ready for something different at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass?” asked the emcee before Big Freedia took the Towers of Gold stage. That was the understatement of the day.
Judging by the faces in the crowd, not everyone knew what to expect. Four dancers in fluorescent clothes walked out on stage first, followed by the tall, hot-pink-haired Big Freedia. Hailing from New Orleans, the Queen of Bounce has collaborated with top names in R&B, pop, and hip-hop including Beyoncé and Sia. The set, which mostly consisted of remixed songs with Freedia’s lyrics layered on top, was entertaining from start to finish. Backstage, some of the members of Cheap Trick including lead singer Robin Zander, looked on during the first few songs.
Radically different from Randy Newman’s set at the adjacent Swan Stage that had been playing through the speakers before her set, Big Freedia took over Towers of Gold with synchronized twerking and a call to “release, release, release, here we go… release the stress, release it all, forget the rest.” The crowd responded with cheers and dancing, though some of the crowd was still in awe of how different this set was from what they had seen before at the festival. But when Big Freedia and her crew segued into a remix of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” the huge crowd—which filled the area provided for the Towers of Gold stage—was on their feet.
The highlight was “Formation,” a song that Big Freedia collaborated on with Beyoncé. Both Big Freedia and her dancers had an extra oomph of pride and swagger that made the song’s message feel personal and immediate. In comparison, the song immediately afterward—which sampled Adele’s “Hello”—felt subdued.
To pick up the pace, Big Freedia asked for ten volunteers to come up on stage. She allowed all twenty people that lined up to join her on stage and directed them to “put your butt to the audience.” The eager fans did so at the same moment the DJ started a song called “Ass Everywhere.” The juxtaposition of that song—which repeated the title phrase—with everyone on stage twerking to varying degrees of success and Big Freedia watching alongside, amused, was absolutely delightful.
Only at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass would a dude in suspenders be shaking his booty. Big Freedia’s show exemplifies what makes this festival so great. Though many in the audience for her set were fans, many were likely just saving a spot for Cheap Trick later in the day. Part of what stood out about Big Freedia was her crew; both the DJ and the dancers were extremely talented.
In addition to twerking all over the stage, the dancers were able to fall down into the splits from a standing position, do handstands, and had the best air guitar all weekend. Big Freedia’s dancers weren’t just supporting acts—all three women and one man clearly had training in ballet, gymnastics, and various forms of dance and were likely some of the most talented and skilled performers at the entire festival.
For her part, Big Freedia is both a diva and a queen; by the end of her amazing mid-afternoon set, she had convinced the entire crowd—many of whom may have not heard bounce before—to be part of her court.
Forget to attend church Sunday morning? Don’t fret. Especially if you heard the Sons of the Soul Revivers at the Banjo Stage. Looking up at the eucalyptus trees in Golden Gate Park, and hearing the band lay down that pure gospel sound sufficed. Born and bred in San Francisco, the group played spirituals and put on a revival.
“Lord don’t move the mountain, just give me strength to climb,” came the deep, harmonizing vocals and church organ. The band’s core has been together 47 years, and it showed.
“It’s rousing,” said Elisa Tauber of Lake Tahoe. “It’s so in the spirit of good things.”
Mixing deep bass vocals and falsetto, their song “It’s a Needed Time” seemed to ease the crowd with some perspective on these unnerving times.
The soul part of the band’s name resonates. Drummer D`Mar played with Little Richard and Organ player Jim Pugh played with Robert Cray and Etta James. Brothers James Morgan (lead singer) and Dwayne Morgan shouted out the vocals as older brother Walter Morgan Jr. plucked out soul licks on the guitar. They all donned white shirts.
The thick, soothing beat drove the crowd to dancing before it was noon. When the Soul Revivers sing about Jesus the savior, and how he changed their lives, they’re convincing. At one point James Morgan slowly walked out into the audience and danced with the crowd as he sang about the Holy Ghost. “We’re so happy to finally be home and singing in our home town,” said Dwayne Morgan.
When Hot Tuna climbed on the Banjo Stage next, that legendary, experimental San Francisco rock blues sound kicked into gear. Bassist Jack Casady, formerly of the Jefferson Airplane and always with Hot Tuna, bounced and strutted across the stage like a kid.
Jorma Kaukonen’s growling blues licks and fuzzy distortion seemed to be dug straight out of the depths of the ‘60s. This pair has been playing together in Golden Gate Park for more than 50 years, and they were in their element – jamming and channeling the Airplane from the days of the Summer of Love.
Ponytails bounced in the sun as people started dancing. Many looked like they had witnessed these guys back in the ‘60s. At times, the throbbing, primal sound seemed to ooze out of a dark swamp, with a taste of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. The music resembled the beginning of creation, bubbling up, moaning and groaning like a wounded animal. No, it was just Hot Tuna electric, the power trio.
Kaukonen’s gravelly voice added an edge to the sound. Then he’d break into a finger-picking country blues that calmed everyone down. Casady is always churning on the bass, putting out a low rumble. The crowd stood up and cheered, waving at the band after the song “Talking ‘bout You.”
Dressed in black with a red scarf and dark cowboy hat, Dave Alvin attacked his Stratocaster guitar with abandon and grit on the Banjo Stage. His bluesy, high-charged rockabilly rolled like a train at times ¬– or a car speeding on the open road.
Alvin’s gutsy, raspy voice has earned him a cult following of fans who revere his songs and can sing them. Formerly of the Blasters, Alvin sang one he wrote called “Long White Cadillac,” a song many bands have covered.
“Everybody else sings it better than me, but I don’t care, I wrote it,” he said, before tearing into the driving, raunchy tune. Drummer Lisa Pankratz pushed the song hard as Alvin sang along “sittin’ in the back of a long white Cadillac.”
Alvin & his band, The Guilty Ones, showcased a ‘50s flavor with strong harmonies. Alvin ripped into his guitar, gripping it like a real axe. His fans buzzed and bantered with each other, talking about the songs, singing the words and smiling about the times they heard him way back when.
Over at the Towers of Gold Stage, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real kept the party going with some fine country-tinged boogie rock. Starting off the set with “Die Alone” from their self-titled 2017 album, it set the crowd up for a rousing cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” One of many Petty tributes of the weekend, with the band’s reverent take and Nelson’s vocals an uncanny resemblance to Petty, they had us celebrating a legend in the best way possible.
Later in the afternoon at the Rooster Stage, people filled up the sides of the hills as well as the grass of the long, skinny meadow, ready for Lampedusa, the all-star, old-fashioned songwriter’s circle featuring Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller and Lucinda Williams. In honor of the recent untimely death of Tom Petty, as well as the group’s partnership with UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, they opened with an emotional rendition of Petty’s “Refugee,” moving the crowd, well aware of Petty’s passing.
After “Refugee,” Emmylou and Buddy Miller lit up the audience with “Gasoline and Matches,” followed by Gram Parson’s “Love Hurts,” which included plenty of rich harmonies from the circle.
Lucinda Williams added a sultry “World without Tears,” conjuring up a lonesome voice out on the plains. Later she picked an earth country blues tune on guitar, singing the refrain “Memories, they’re a thorn in my side.”
Bob Weir of Grateful Dead fame made a guest appearance, performing a passionate version of “Know Your Rider.” He was moved as he sang the lines “you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” The harmonies flowed intimate the magical hollow, reverberating off the hills.
Patty Griffin provided another highlight with her soulful vocals on “Standin’ in the Shadows of the Heat.” Then came Steve Earle’s song “Pilgrim,” which carried a message for the spirit: “We’re all pilgrims, and have a right to have a home.” With Emmylou, Lucinda and Patty Griffin adding heartfelt harmonies, people sitting on blankets and lawn chairs sang too as the set wound down.
The sun started sinking, turning orange just over the trees. It was still warm in the late afternoon when beloved songwriter John Prine stepped on the Banjo stage with his band, featuring stand-up bass, mandolin and ringing electric guitar.
Karl the Fog was nowhere in sight, and fans streamed in despite the fact that the grounds had been mostly filled since late morning. Though the crowd was immense, the feeling of chaos and frenzy of Saturday had dissipated; most fans were content to sit on a blanket and sip on a beer or a Kombucha. Prine’s first two songs—“Love, Love, Love” and “Glory of True Love”—continued the mellow vibe and as the sun headed toward Ocean Beach, couples wrapped their arms around one another and swayed.
The crowd was packed with fans who knew the words to all of Prine’s songs and from the get-go the sang along with him. His emotional singing and lyrics resonated and drew an appreciative and hearty applause.
Wearing sunglasses, a dark suit, white shirt and lavender tie, Prine rolled through some of his classics. It didn’t take long for him to send out a zinger in his gravelly voice from one of his lyrics: “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore, we’re already crowded from you dirty little war.”
Two- and three-part harmonies enriched the songs, and Jason Wilber’s electric guitar brought out an edge, or a pretty melody. One of the highlights was Prine’s adored “Angel From Montgomery,” which he dedicated to Bonnie Raitt (who scored a hit with the song in the ‘70s). As he played the intro he smiled at the crowd, which sensed what was coming. Wilber’s slide guitar brought it to life.
Prine’s band members had a chance to shine—each played a solo, called out by Prine, on different songs throughout the set. In addition, Kurt Vile (who played his own set that day with Courtney Barnett) stepped in to play “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” with the band. Prine closed the show with another classic, “Standing by Peaceful Waters,” which included more of Prine’s stellar storytelling.
With Jr. Brown in the saddle at the Rooster Stage you pictured the wide-open spaces and open roads of Texas– his car songs and country boogies often sounded like diesel rock. Playing his unique guit-steel, a double-necked instrument with both guitar and steel guitar attached, Brown took versatility to another level. He showcased some of the fastest chicken picking on guitar, and then scratched out a highway song with the whine of a steel guitar. He’ll take you for a truck ride on the black top, or a trip in a Highway Patrol car, complete with sirens. Then he’ll slow it down for a country tearjerker.
Wearing a pinched blond cowboy hat, dark suit and tie, Brown also demonstrated an impressive vocal range. He is able to go high and lonesome or take it down to a deep bass growl. He sings about heartache and troubles in a one-horse town. Case in point: his new song “Another Honkey Tonk Bar Burned down.”
His set brought out the cowboys and cowgirls with gusto, and he had them dancing the two-step on the dirt and grass. People yelped and hooted at his deadpan humor in “I’m Doing My Job, I’m a Highway Patrol.” Then he drawled out a modern country original with the line: “Your Twitter gives me the jitters.”
In total contrast, he cut into a chilling slow blues song in the exact style of blues giant Albert King. Then came a surf instrumental and a rendition of the theme from the old TV show Rawhide. In the twilight at the cozy Rooster Stage, happy faces and smiles were everywhere as the pure country virtuoso waved goodbye.
Across the park at the Towers of Gold Stage, a cult following was roaring in anticipation of Cheap Trick. It was a scene for the young at heart, those not taking themselves too seriously, and maybe looking for a sound heavier than fiddles and banjos.
“Hello there ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rock?” came the cry from the stage. The band exploded into its wall of guitar sound, with Rick Nielsen on his Flying V guitar jumping across the stage. Cheap Trick zealots had sprung out of the woodwork filling the field.
Nielsen played his guitar with his teeth on “California Man,” after switching to a square guitar with his characteristic showmanship. That wasn’t all from him on the guitar parade. He pulled out another Flying V and several other one-of-a-kind models throughout the set.
Screaming guitars, crunching drums by Nielsen’s son Daxx, and the scorching vocals of Robin Zander turned things into a raucous party. “It smells a little medicinal up here,” quipped Nielsen. “You guys are smokin’ Rock Star weed?”
The band changed the pace on the cover “Ain’t That A Shame,” and cooled its tone on Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Beefy bass and drum solos shifted the dynamics, but that merely delighted the crowd when screaming guitars and feedback returned as the hits continued.
Huge bubbles floated over the crowd, which danced a stone’s throw from the park’s polo grounds. The sun slipped behind the trees as the audience roared. Cheap Trick closed the show with the bookend staple “Good Night Ladies and Gentlemen” and Nielsen brought out his 5-neck guitar invention, strumming hard, bouncing up and down like a cartoon character.
After the show, Larry Hernandez, 68, who comes up every year from L.A. for the festival, pondered his schedule like many Hardly Strictly attendees, trying to figure out which band to see next. “I’m torn,” he said. “I want to see one band, but I want to see everyone else, too.”
Sipping the last of the beer and wine concertgoers had brought, the crowd at the Banjo Stage settled in for the last act of the night: Emmylou Harris. After the Hellman family asked the crowd, “Should we do this again next year?” and the crowd answered “HOT DOG!” Harris, who has played every year of HSB’s 17-year tenure, stepped to the stage: “Here we go again,” she said before starting “One Of These Days.”
The fog stayed away during Harris’s set even as the dark didn’t. As she played “Red Dirt Girl,” a dad took advantage of some space freed up by fans looking to beat the traffic and taught his young daughter to dance a 2-step.
As people took their last group photos to commemorate the weekend, Harris paused between songs. Before playing “If I Needed You”—which she recorded in 1981 with the late Don Williams—she said, “For those of you who love country music, there’s an artist who passed away… a gentle giant. He was so gracious that in 1981, he was nice enough to let me into his recording session and do this song with him.”
After “Goin’ Back to Harlan,” Harris thanked the crowd by saying “It’s so beautiful, but it’s really about the people,” and then sang “Abraham, Martin, and John” a song originally recorded in the 1960s about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. As her set drew to a close, the purple and blue klieg lights atop the stage matched the hue of the sky and a huge tree next to the stage was lit up with pink and orange.
After Harris walked offstage, emcee Paul Mann sent away the crowd with fitting words. “Take the joy and happiness and peace with you out to the neighborhoods and be present there. Only you can make a difference.”