Hardly Strictly Bluegrass | 10.02-10.04

Words by: Sam Martin | Images by: Dave Vann

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival :: 10.02 – 10.04 :: Golden Gate Park :: San Francisco, CA

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2009
Golden Gate Park played host to the 9th Annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and the lineup, crowds and camaraderie did not disappoint.

There was a sixth stage added this year, the Towers of Gold Stage, and although Speedway Meadow was pushed to its capacity, it didn't seem to bother the estimated 500,000 that turned out for this year's extravaganza. The event felt well organized and with 80 top-notch bands performing for free all weekend, there was hardly anything one could really complain about.

Financed by billionaire investment banker and amateur banjoist Warren Hellman, this year was the largest by far and has already been touted as a success. Which leaves one to ask, "Where can it go from here?" Hellman, a bluegrass enthusiast and lover of music who started this Festival in 2001, made his money as the founder and chairman of San Francisco-based Hellman and Friedman LLC, a private equity investment firm. So, what makes him so far removed from his peers? With his nickname, The Hillbilly Millionaire, his band, The Wronglers, and his passion for bluegrass, he most surely stands out from his associates. This being said, it hasn't always been such an eclectic festival. Yes, from the onset it's been subsidized by Hellman and it has always been a bluegrass festival, but it wasn't until 2003 that the "Hardly" was added to the name of the festival and artists from almost every genre were invited.

Friday, 10.02

Friday the meadow was filled with a variety of fans, not to mention the lucky middle school students from the local district that got to spend their afternoon in the park watching music. Speaking with a few students who seemed ecstatic to be at such a large festival, they were amazed that it was free to the public. Of course, MC Hammer playing "Can't Touch This" probably went over their heads, and although his time as a headliner has past, that did little to diminish his performance, and the fact that he's been included in the festival the past couple of years shows the diversity in artists that get to play.

The highlight of Friday was John Prine, who played in the afternoon as a notable chill picked up out of the West as festivalgoers dug into their packs for sweatshirts and blankets. Prine, never one to stick to just singing, interspersed songs with commentary, though he nailed hits such as "Angel From Montgomery." The evening was dazzling, with a feel of autumn in the air as Prine and his formally dressed band exited the stage. It almost felt like the perfect note to leave on, but it was worth waiting around to hear a few songs from Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. With an ear-to-ear grin, Lovett never disappoints, and as a live artist he rocks and rolls, playing off the crowd and did so until darkness brought the day to a close.

Saturday, 10.03

Steve Martin :: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2009
Saturday started with a bang at the Star Stage with Great American Taxi, a bluegrass/country-rock mix featuring Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon. It was exciting to hear the way they approached their songs. They strayed from the typical bluegrass routine and jammed out a few tunes with amazing banjo and bass rhythms.

Next stop, back to the Towers of Gold Stage, as I planned my day around a tight schedule and an increasingly crowded park. With the wind now starting to shift from a mild breeze to whirlwinds and dust storms, Buddy Miller was on the agenda. As Miller made his appearance, the music was sweet and melodic but almost too much so, and then to much fanfare and surprise Buddy's old boss Emmylou Harris came out, looking stunning as usual. She was not expected to perform until Sunday afternoon, so this came as a nice surprise. Speaking of nice surprises, an amazing appearance by Robert Plant, who played last year with Alison Krauss, came as a total shock, and they covered Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On" - an electric moment for sure.

Another great band that some overlooked was Okkervil River, an indie rock act from Austin, Texas. Their chemistry onstage was so moving that after their set I was ready to buy a few of their albums, Black Sheep Boy and Golden Opportunities being what was recommended. They amassed a nice crowd at the Towers Stage as the wind continued to whip and wallop the meadow as the audience loosened up for a day of dancing, clapping, and cheering.

Steve Martin could fit in with almost any bluegrass outfit of his choosing. A little known secret about the well-known actor and comedian is that music and the banjo have always been his first love. He has, of course, incorporated this into his stand-up routines, but his humor takes nothing away from his raw talent as a musician, and he absolutely rocks onstage! The Steep Canyon Rangers, the band that he has played with more and more lately, are incredible. Martin was captivating and never one to shy away from humorous commentary, but the music, while slightly drowned out by the wind's howl, still hit hard. The percussive beats that flowed from his banjo were mesmerizing and made one wish this show could have gone on forever.

As Saturday morning turned into Saturday afternoon, the crowd of 300,000 was making itself known, cramming onto hillsides, on top of portable bathrooms, and into trees. Nick Lowe performed on the Star Stage, which was less than impressive, most likely because by this time the sound was suffering due to the wind and din of a very large crowd. As I departed I could make out "Cruel To Be Kind," but it was time head to the Banjo Stage for Gillian Welch. Happily settled in front of the stage, where the acoustics were great for this entire set, Welch displayed her beautiful voice and rhythm guitar licks. The wind seemed to die down completely as she bellowed out "Wrecking Ball."

Sunday, 10.04

Emmylou Harris :: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2009
Sunday was the day I was most looking forward to. The day started windy but not bothersome, and it wasn't too crowded as I made my way to the Rooster Stage to see Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3. They had me at the sound check. His Americana musical influences came through strongly on songs like "The Falling" and the rocking "Give It To The Soft Boys," with his voice mixing well with The Venus 3. Hitchcock played many of the newer songs off of his latest album, Goodnight Oslo, and though his show was more Americana, being a British born singer-songwriter, he teamed up well with Peter Buck (R.E.M.) in his recent work to create an Americana-Indie hybrid that was lovely. An awesome start to a long wind swept day.

At this point it was off to the Star Stage to catch The Chieftains, an Irish band that has been playing their traditional Irish folk music and upbeat rhythms for over 40 years. This got me thinking about how much Irish folk music has influenced bluegrass in America. Leaving the Star Stage, it was back to the Banjo Stage to see the honorable Earl Scruggs. If it wasn't for people like Scruggs we would not be having this festival, and for someone born in 1924 he brought it to the stage at full steam! The connection he shared with the crowd as they cheered him on was overwhelming, and I felt honored to see him perform again. I hope he returns next year. What a living legend!

Regretfully, I missed the amazing piano work of Allen Toussaint, but when there are 80 bands to choose from you can only catch so many. However, I struck up a conversation with a couple from New Orleans who had seen Toussaint and would not stop talking about how beautifully he played. You can't see it all and if you happen to get stuck in one of those amazing moments like I did with Earl Scruggs, then you've gotta go with the flow. The night ended with a gorgeous set by Emmylou Harris, another Hardly Strictly Bluegrass staple, and then a long set that went past twilight from Old Crow Medicine Show.

Other great sets included Neko Case and Aimee Mann, not to mention a much talked about "White Room" cover by Robert Earl Keen.

What I came away with, besides three days of diverse and terrific music, was a feeling of community that was lacking at other festivals in Golden Gate Park this past year. People seemed happy to just be there. Maybe it was the lack of a price tag or the intimate, grassy area that was shared by so many. Whatever it was, I'm Hardly ready to see it go, this weekend in San Francisco was strictly a pleasure.

Continue reading for more pics from Hardly Strictly '09...

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