Words & Images by: James Martin
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival :: 09.30.11-10.02.11 :: Golden Gate Park :: San Francisco, CA
A full gallery of James’ photos from HSBF 2011 begins at the end of this review!
Along with the end of summer comes the end of the festival season, but with the first weekend of October it’s not quite over in San Francisco. The 11th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is going on, an annual free concert that Warren Hellman throws each year in Golden Gate Park. San Franciscans as well as music fanatics from all over the country and world travel to the three day gathering that is packed with six stages of music that is truly, hardly strictly, bluegrass! This year’s festival was a special one as it was a tribute to Hazel Dickens, who sadly passed away this past year at age 75. Throughout the weekend you heard many musicians mention her and the influence she had on them.
|SF Mayor Leland Yee & Warren Hellman by James Martin|
With the weather being near perfect for October in San Francisco it brought out over 600,000 people to Golden Gate Park over a three-day span. The festival has evolved from a strictly bluegrass lineup to a more eclectic lineup that has featured anyone from Earl Scruggs to Buckethead. This is one of those festivals where you have every intention of going from stage to stage to see your favorite artists but find yourself at one stage for the day soaking up the sunshine and a lineup varying from big names to musicians you might not have heard before.
This year marked the first year that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has had a full day of music on Friday with four of the six stages being used. In the years past Friday morning was for the local Bay Area school children to enjoy sets by MC Hammer and Poor Man's Whiskey but this year the children’s part was moved to Thursday. You would think that on a Friday morning you would not see such a large crowd but this was not the case, as a larger Friday crowd showed up earlier in the day this year. This even sparked a comment from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder and financier Warren Hellman that it “was amazing that everyone in San Francisco had the day off.” The attendees of HSBF were their own city for the weekend and could have been the People’s Republic of Speedway Meadow.
|Preservation Hall @ HSBG 2011 by James Martin|
Friday, September 30
Friday on the Banjo Stage, which is considered by most the main stage of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, started off with a former Bay Area resident, Bill Kirchen, former guitarist of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Kirchen mixed folk, rock, and blues in his set with a distinct twang from his Telecaster. He ended his short but energetic set with a medley of tunes that paid tribute to artists such as Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, The Sex Pistols and Iggy & The Stooges. Following the rockin’ sound of Kirchen was The Seldom Scene, a bluegrass band that has been around since the early 70s. They brought a sound that many would consider traditional bluegrass with some newgrass blended in.
|David Bromberg Quartet @ HSBG 2011 by James Martin|
When David Bromberg and his Quartet began, David stated that he had been wanting to play the festival for 11 years and finally had that wish come true. Bromberg came on strong with his blend of blues and folk with songs like “Nobody Knows How I Feel,” the acoustic “Dark Hollow,” and ended with David explaining he was “Nobody’s Fool.”
One pairing that was true to the Hardly Strictly theme was the bluegrass sound of The Del McCoury Band and the New Orleans jazz sound of Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This talented group of musicians recently recorded an album together in San Francisco and will be opening Preservation Hall West sometime next year. Throughout their set they wove bluegrass and Dixieland jazz, and had the crowd on their feet dancing along with the traditional “I’ll Fly Away.”
Legendary singer-songwriter John Prine, who is no stranger to the festival, gave the crowd one of the best sets of the night with his blend of humor and seriousness. Prine went to his back catalog with classics such as “Paradise,” “Lake Marie” and the Steve Goodman penned “Souvenirs.” As far as sets go for the day, I felt Prine stole the show.
|John Prine @ HSBG 2011 by James Martin|
Speaking of legends, when you go back to the early 60s and 70s there’s one major rock ‘n’ roll band that most think of - Led Zeppelin. These days frontman Robert Plant is not doing heavy rock songs but is in more of a different kind of band with The Band of Joy, which features a super-group of musicians with Buddy Miller on guitar, Patty Griffin on vocals and guitar, and multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott. His set started off with the classic Zeppelin song “Black Dog,” though a slower, in-your-face rendition of the tune. During the set, which was not only Zeppelin covers but original Band of Joy numbers, Plant and his band wowed the extremely large crowd. When their set ended with another Zeppelin classic, “Ramble On,” Plant and the Band of Joy were called out for an encore, which are rare at this festival, and finished the night with “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” and “Gallows Pole.”
Saturday, October 1
When you play Hardly Strictly there’s a chance that you are going to make some new fans, and one band in particular made a huge impact this year. That band was Greensky Bluegrass. Hailing from Michigan, Greensky Bluegrass molds a sound that is steep in traditional bluegrass but taking it to the next level with a psychedelic twist. Their set only lasted 30 minutes but during this time they were able to squeeze in as many songs as they could and afterwards sold out of all their new CD Handguns.
|Greensky Bluegrass @ HSBG 2011 by James Martin|
The The Alison Brown Quartet played a style of bluegrass that leans towards the jazz side of the genre. Within her set, her two children sang “Old Dan Tucker,” which brought out the sunshine. Hardly Strictly veterans Gillian Welch and David Rawlings gave a spectacular performance, including both classics and songs from Gillian’s most recent endeavor The Harrow & the Harvest. In a nod to the Bay Area rock scene, the duo brought their set to a close with a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
Following Gillian and David, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band led a parade onstage, including San Francisco Mayor Leland Yee, Warren Hellman, and his family. Warren was honored by the city with the flag of the San Francisco present by Mayor Yee.
|Steve Earle & The Dukes & Dutchesses by James Martin|
Before the festival lineup is announced you know one artist that will close the Banjo Stage on Saturday night, namely the one and only Steve Earle. This year, Earle brought back his band The Dukes and Duchesses, which includes his wife Alison Moore. Earle, who recently had a role in the highly acclaimed HBO series Treme, came off with his hardcore troubadour style of music. Earle played both acoustic and electric during his set, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band sat-in with him on the New Orleans-inspired “This City.” One song in particular that really stood out during the set was Allison Moore belting out Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” over a hushed crowd of thousands. Earle talked about how the people keep coming and coming to this festival and how it will continue to grow. He finished his set with The Animal’s “Warm San Franciscan Nights,” and proceeded to the merchandise booth to sign autographs and pose for photos with his fans.
Sunday, October 2
The Arrow Stage filled up early on Sunday, which was no surprise considering the talented lineup for the day. The day started with a mellow, mild set from Joe Purdy. Following Purdy was local jam-rockers Moonalice, who typically take the 11:30 am slot on the Arrow Stage. Their fans were well represented throughout the crowd as the band dove into original tunes “Kick It Open” and the always jamming “Tell Me It’s Ok”.
|The Devil Makes Three @ HSBG 2011 by James Martin|
The Devil Makes Three took the stage next, taking it up a notch with their high energy, bluegrass-fueled rock. The crowd returned that energy with dancing and eventually a mosh pit – unexpected at a festival like Hardly Strictly but not unusual for this Santa Cruz-based band. Their set featured classics like “The Tow” and the infamous “Old Number 7” with the crowd singing along to most tunes. The Arrow Stage became thick with fans gearing up for an afternoon filled with jam band favorites Hot Buttered Rum, The Mother Hips and Dark Star Orchestra.
Meanwhile, the Banjo Stage rocked on with traditional favorites The Blind Boys of Alabama with their uplifting gospel-country songs. Dr. Ralph Stanley has been playing bluegrass music for 65 years and even at 84 still brings a presence to the stage that is matched by few. Stanley, who made the “claw hammer” style of banjo playing famous, does not play it much anymore but instead lends his distinct vocals to his band. However, he did treat the crowd to a bit of pickin’ towards the end of the set.
|Ralph Stanley & Clinch Mtn Boys by James Martin|
As the festival was coming to a close, Warren Hellman thanked the crowd and everyone involved with the festival. He also announced the annual Sunday Banjo Stage closer, Emmylou Harris. Emmylou was her usual happy self and sang like an angel as she covered Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl.” Harris simply radiates the sound of Americana music.
The 11th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was another huge success. A big thank you goes out to all involved with the festival, especially Warren Hellman for putting it on. For the large crowd that turns out every year it’s amazing how few incidents arise – a testament to the positive vibe that is spread throughout the weekend by the musicians and fans alike. It’s less than a year away until the next Hardly Strictly and one can only fathom what’s in store next.
Friday, September 30
Continue reading for pics from Saturday...