Hardly Strictly Anything

by Steve Heilig, October 13, 2011

I'm a music festival veteran; was too young for the original Woodstock but wound up going to many others, and even working at one for over a decade — the legendary peak years of Reggae on the River. My tolerance for crowding, mass madness, noise and food poisoning has decreased, but I make sure to attend at least part of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB) in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park every year, and I think I've hit them all, which now makes eleven years running.

Billionaire financier/banjoist (not sure what he'd list first these days) Warren Hellman is what I've jokingly called a musical socialist who brings an absolutely incredible free lineup to Golden Gate Park each year, and at a time of year when the climate is best — this year timed to just beat out the rain. He may be smarter that way than those who put on the big summer festivals like Outside Lands — although they are likely playing to a younger crowd for whom summer vacation is a bigger factor. HSB draws an all-ages crowed with more of a preponderance of the aged than pretty much any other such festival.

Hellman has said, half-seriously, that he puts it on in order to get a gig for his own group, the Wronglers. How much the whole thing costs is private but it has to be many millions. Noblesse oblige, I guess. Crowds have been estimated at over half a million for the whole three-day weekend — bigger than Woodstock, in fact. It can get oppressively packed out among the six stages and on the trails in-between, but the foot traffic is well-managed and the crowd well-behaved with very few “incidents.” Some, perhaps many, former attendees have stopped coming due to the crowds, but clearly the event is as popular as ever, with folks coming from all over the country and maybe beyond.

From a more “strictly” twangy event, the musical menu has broadened to include just about everything short of opera or heavy metal. Very much is written about it; here's some more, a personal “ten best” from a long, beautiful, musical weekend.

1. Robert Plant and his Band of Joy. He looks like Gandalf the Great Grey Wizard now, and still retains his magical mystical powers. The band is superb, including the striking Patty Griffin and omnipresent guitarist Buddy Miller, and when they kick into Led Zeppelin tunes it's just nivana-ish (and I was never even that much of a Zep fan; but when he sang of Mordor and Gollum on a fantastic version of “Ramble On,” it was wizardly). The guy has nothing to prove and seems to be having a great time up there.

2. John Prine. This guy was saddled with a 'new Dylan' tag when he first surfaced in the 1970s; what a curse. He outdid it tho, and is considered one of the greatest of songwriters. This time with a great band in black suits, he looked a bit like Homer Simpson but rocked and rolled and enthralled all present.

3. M. Ward and Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst). I put these two together as they were a one-two headlining punch of the best of the newer breed of singer/songwriters. I'd expected some fairly folky sounds but they both seemed intent on rocking hard, and they did. I did bust Mr. Ward skipping out on Mr. Oberst's set to catch Plant; who could blame him and one has to choose and, if lucky, catch half of each of many favorites.

4. Irma Thomas. The Queen of N'Awlin's soul. What a voice, what a presence, what a big funky horned band. This kind of sound just jumps out and grabs everybody in the area in the midst of the mellower vibe.

5. The Blind Boys of Alabama. Here too, the power of the voices and rhythms are just irresistible. As much boogalo in the crowd as any other act I saw all weekend, and for a Sunday gospel sermon no less. Triumph over adversity indeed; triumph over everything.

6. Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses. A perennial favorite, and a true entertainer who pulls no punches — proof that there is room for all political persuasions under this festival's sunny skies. And his cover of Eric Burden's goofy “San Francisco Nights” was no pandering, but a wondrous singalong.

7. Gillian Welch. Another every-year must-see; she and her partner David Rawlings set some sort of new standard for downbeat songs and singing and playing. And she too recognized the homecrowd with a crystal clear rendition of the Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic chestnut “White Rabbit” that, as my niece nicely put it, “just killed.”

8. Ollabelle. This lesser-known group came highly recommended, and with reason. Two ringing female singers and great players; and one more ringer for the home crowd, a slowed-down beauteous rendition of the Dead's “Ripple.”

9. Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, & Edgar Meyer. Wow; a banjo wielded mightily by Fleck as a sitar in the only example of raga-grass I've heard. The audience was spellbound and homeboy Hussain, who plays tablas with the greatest of masters, seemed to be having as much a good time as I've seen him show onstage, his hands a blur of mastery and a big smile on his face.

10. The crowd, staff, volunteers… 250,000? 500k? 700k? All sorts of estimates out there, and who knows how many, really. But you'll not find better vibes in a city that size anwhere on the planet or beyond. More smiles per square acre than anyplace on the planet.

That's it, I guess (the legendary Ralph Stanley's Sunday bluegrass church session could replace one of these). I missed much, it's just unavoidable now with six stages going all day and too many people to wade through to get to everything one might want to see (sorry for me, Flatlanders, Queen Emmylou, Kris Kristofferson, and especially — Merle Haggard!). I wish it were less crowded but what to do? I also wish there was a chance there to donate to good local worthy causes — I'd even volunteer at a booth for, say, the San Francisco Food Bank, Planned Parenthood, the SPCA, the park itself, etc., as I expect this crowd would pony up generously in gratitude for the beautiful festival and the place it takes place within.

But it's Mr. Hellman's party, his banjo pickin' gets better every year (and he put out a very nice Wronglers CD with guru Jimmie Dale Gilmore this year), he's provided for it to continue in his will; and really all one can say is: Thanks, sir. Yet again.

2 Responses to Hardly Strictly Anything

  1. Christopher Fisher Reply

    October 15, 2011 at 8:23 am

    Great review and list Steve! Thanks a bunch for posting this. It appears we watched and appreciated many of the same artists. For me, this was the first time in five years of attendance that I was able to attend Friday and Saturday. Yee Haww! Once again I can say that I’ve never been in a crowd of that size and felt so absolutely comfortable and safe with little girls tagging along. That’s just one of the amazing, recurring features of this event. I had to see John Prine, my last opportunity was in 1990! Gillian Welch and partner were amazing and White Rabbit a wonderful surprise. Steve Earle is right on every single time, and San Francisco Days was a real treat. What a singalong! But Plant and the Band of Joy were the real surprise. What a fantastic band, and what Zep fan could not enjoy that reworked version of Ramble On? If you ever come across a set list of their tunes I’d appreciate hearing about it. One of the last tunes they played was among the best, and I can’t for the life of me recall what it was or any of the lyrics. Thanks again

  2. horehound stillpoint Reply

    October 30, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    The last two numbers – the encore, actually – were Bron-y-aur Stomp and then Gallows Pole. And the last number of the set proper . . . wasn’t that the song about ‘shifting sands’ from the Robert Plant and Band of Joy collection?

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