A gift of Bay-area financier Warren Hellman, Strictly Hardly Bluegrass surfaced eight years ago when the millionaire, philanthropist, and bluegrass aficionado decided to fly in some of his favorite performers and put on a free festival. This year some 40 000 patrons spread their blankets across Golden Gate Park‘s sprawling grassland to enjoy everything from bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. With a program spanning three days and five stages and featuring a wealth of talent, tough decisions had to be made.
With Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (and a band that featured the likes of T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller) embracing their role as Friday evening’s headliners, the duo offered up a select set of songs from their collaborative Raising Sand release, along with a sprinkling of redesigned Led Zeppelin staples and Americana classics. As Saturday morning rolled around it was Carlene Carter that opened the day’s proceedings on the Rooster Stage. Part of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’s charm is the interconnectedness of the artists - something Carter’s banter underlined when she explained, “this next song comes from my third divorce - he’s playing later” in reference to Nick Lowe‘s appearance on the same stage a couple of hours later.
As Carter exited the stage, Guy Clarke was only too willing to take command of it. With Verlon Thompson at his side, the Clarke launched into a rousing rendition of “Tornado Time in Texas” before easing into a beautiful version of his majestic “L.A. Freeway.” The conclusion of Clarke and Thompson’s set brought a youthful influx to the foot of the stage in preparation for the reunion of Mark Olson and Gary Louris. Having toured together at the end of last year with a band behind them, today’s one hour set found the two Jayhawks armed only with acoustic guitars and harmonies that seemed to rain down from heaven.
Their performance was by no means faultless, but the levity that ensued helped greatly to soften all that was rough around the edges. When their vocals intertwined on songs such as “Sister Cry” and “Blue” the harmonic result far exceed the sum of the parts. The pair has an album in the works, and songs like the delicate “Saturday Morning on Sunday Street” and brazen “Chamberlain SD” offered a diverse and enchanting insight into the release. It was then a quick dash across to the Banjo Stage for a rendezvous with Three Girls and Their Buddy.
The “three girls” in question were none other than Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Shaun Colvin, while their “buddy” was played by Buddy Miller. Seated in a row, the foursome successively passed the musical flame down. And while there was no questioning the talent or legacy that was present, the format posed an obstacle. With the accumulated vocal force, more harmonizing and less token percussion from the three sitting in wait would have gone a long way to overcoming this small obstacle.
Marty Willson-Piper was a surprise and welcome addition to this year’s lineup. In the angelic backing vocals of his all-female Mood Maidens ensemble, the guitarist from The Church has found the perfect foil for his typically mottled lead. Likewise, the grinding cello perfectly underpins Willson-Piper’s signature 12-string acoustic onslaught. While Willson-Piper’s heart is in the right place with the Mood Maidens, it was Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women that offered crowds the best look at a successful all-female ensemble.
With the sublimely talented Cindy Cashdollar and Nina Gerber leading the five-piece backing ensemble on dobro and acoustic guitar, respectively, Alvin et al turned in an awe-inspiring rendition of Kate Wolf’s “Here In California,” along with a blistering performance of his own “Abilene.” Hardly Strictly Bluegrass inspires such ad-hoc teaming, but seldom do they resonate as deeply and masterfully as this one did. Bringing the day to a closure on the Banjo Stage was Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes.
Despite the dearth of talent that spread across Sunday’s program, the gathering masses deemed it sensible to lay claim to a patch of Golden Gate turf until day’s end. Hence, there was to be no meadow swapping on Sunday, simply a day spent at the foot of the Rooster Stage. With Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, and Fats Kaplin jovially opening the proceedings, it was Bonnie “Prince” Billy who brought in the throng. While handing out kazoos to the audience might have played to his band’s hillbilly aesthetic, their musical offerings were anything but.
Refined and infectious, the ensemble crafted a beautiful soundscape that may owe its origins to the hills of Kentucky. But that didn’t mean the Californian audience didn’t eat it up. “Goat and Ram,” “Lay Down in the Light,” and “Wolf Amongst Wolves” had frontman Will Oldham bouncing and twisting - and the audience clapping and kazoo-playing along. Oldham’s departure opened the way for Greg Brown to continue the musical journey through the depths of America’s heartland.
For Sunday’s outing, Iron & Wine was confined to simply Sam Beam and his acoustic guitar. Yet this didn’t stop the meadow from bursting its seams and the crowd from swelling up the surrounding escarpments. As patrons clambered for every conceivable viewing spot, Beam wound through songs such as “Peace Beneath The City”, “Sodom, South Georgia”, and “Dead Man’s Will” (from his outstanding collaboration with Calexico). And when they weren’t holding onto branches for dear life, the audience was applauding ravenously in appreciation.
With Emmylou Harris left to close the event on the Banjo Stage - as has become a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass tradition - the eighth annual installment was brought to a close. While the aforementioned performances were moments to be treasured, there were an equal number lamentably missed. But such is the rue of this undertaking. It is a treasure of Americana talent and choices had to be made. But one can always take solace in the fact that there is always next year. Thanks, Warren.