Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2013.
The weather forecast for the weekend of the 2013 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival sounded great. It would be a San Francisco Indian summer weekend. Sunny and clear. This was good news, but it also meant more of the casual fans would be showing up this weekend. People seemed to be more courteous in the last couple of years, especially about using cell phones. There’s no way around it. It’s going to be crowded.
Maybe HSB is too big now, but does have a variety of acts. So, you can find your own level, if you’re careful. You go to ten or eleven of these things and you pick up a few tricks. It will still be crowded and there are still people who show up who are clueless, but it’s still an amazing event.
I was able to spend most of the weekend there again this year. It’s expensive to see any live music these days. I planned to go early and see as many bands as possible for free. Stage hopping is possible on Friday or the very early going on Saturday and Sunday. There was another great list of performers this year, but we’ve learned that you can’t see most of them. You can plan, but much of what we see is still left to chance. There were a couple of things that happened Sunday that put a different perspective on this year’s event.
Many song titles are approximations. Not every song is listed. This is a bit long, but it is a massive event.
Friday. October 4.
I arrived in time to hear the end of the school kids program. So MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” was the first song I heard at HSB 13. A field full of school kids bouncing to Rap music is an awesome spectacle.
The opening acts started at noon. There are three stages on Friday. (Six on Saturday and Sunday!) I headed to the Banjo Stage for Jesse Dee. The biography on the web site said he recreates the sound of classic R&B. He has a laid back R&B sound with a horn section. It was a nice start to HSB.
Jesse Dee. “You Can Count on Me” “I Won’t Forget About You” Title track from new CD: “On My Mind, In My Heart.” “Fussing and Fighting” “It’s Gonna Be All Right” “Close To Me”
If you want to avoid the huge crowds, early Friday is the time to go. It’s relatively easy to bounce from the Banjo to Arrow Stages. So, I went over to see Manchester Orchestra.
Manchester Orchestra were three young guys. Two guitars and a synthesizer. All three songs I heard were about or mentioned death. They did a mournful version of “The Party’s Over.” They turned the song Dandy Don Meredith sang on Monday Night Football into a dirge. The last line of each chorus was something like, “And the shit starts all over again.” Just so there’s no shred of anything positive.
“When I Pass Over” “Mean Everything to Nothing”
Their sound was interesting. Synthesizer. Not a great discovery, but an interesting diversion.
I went back for the Soul finale of Jesse Dee. Jesse DeNatale was next. He was from Sonoma, so I thought I’d check him out. While I’m waiting I found a spot in the shade on a huge log. A small group was sitting on it. An Asian guy strummed a ukulele. A young woman with a camera and notebook walked up to him and started asking him questions. How long had Steve been playing ukulele. “How do you spell ukulele?” No one on the log really knew, except Steve. I doubted she was a reporter, but the next day SFGate.com had a picture of the guy and a few other people on the log. I was just cut out of the picture. I guess that showed me!
A Great Blue Heron flew past the back of The Banjo Stage. It was a reminder that we are in the Golden Gate Park ecosystem. Sometimes we take the park for granted. It’s a constant green backdrop to the weekend’s proceedings.
The MC welcomed all the federal employees that were here enjoying “their sequester day off.” Jesse DeNatale had a good band and he’s an eccentric songwriter. “Besides You” “Skip To My Lou” “This song takes place in San Francisco.” “Watch the Next Day Turn” I walked up behind the soundboard for a closer look and got caught between two pairs of people gabbing, oblivious to the music. They were yelling over the music to tell their boring stories. The first obnoxious people of this HSB. Soon there would be thousands more. DeNatale played an ode to Oscar Grant. I headed to The Arrow stage to see what Freakwater was about.
Most of the members of Freakwater are women. They played a song about whiskey not being evil. Through the binoculars I could see that the male bass player with greased back hair was smoking a cigarette. Every day started with an announcement that NO tobacco smoking was allowed in the park. This is largely ignored, apparently even onstage. The women sang great harmonies and the crowd stirred for the first time today. People danced in an area in front of the stage. I noticed a sign up there: “HSB Pit Pass Required.”
I’d heard of The Felice Brothers, so I went over to The Rooster Stage. I usually use a trail that goes along a hill to stage left. This was blocked by cyclone fences. This was one of my favorite spots and is among the first spots I ever heard live music in the park. To get to that side of the stage you now have to go through the crowd in the meadow. Eventually a trail takes you up the side of the hill, but there’s not as much room up there as years past.
I didn’t realize how popular The Felice Brothers were or I would have passed. I did get up the hill on the side of the stage and found a small spot. People kept pouring in. This was the first major migration of this year’s HSB.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” “Give Me One More Night” “Shot Me Down”
It was a young crowd. Conor Oberst would end the day here. The other acts at The Rooster Stage would be “friends” of Conor Oberst. It was already crowded. Some women had their nightclub clothes on. Cocktail dresses and even high heels. They staggered through the crowd. It was strange to see this out in the park. Most of the crowd were older and in more reasonable outdoor clothes.
A group next to me were from Down Under. The girls looked like they were going to a fashion shoot. Their chatter was somewhat amusing. “Are we all from New Zealand?” A Kiwi bombshell opened a sparkling water and sprayed me and the next group of people. She was apologetic. It was only water.
The Felice Brothers had a mix of New Orleans and Celtic going. There was great accordion. This was a party band. I’m glad I got to see them, but I’d be more careful for the rest of the weekend.
I looked around late in their set and realized that NO ONE around me was listening. Most were talking. It was a huge pick up bar. It was like a fern bar in the Seventies. Whatever. Maybe that is what it’s all about.
HSB draws groups of street kids. I call them the tribe. Many come from the Haight. They’re filthy and dressed in rags. It’s almost a uniform. Patches on patches. They’re living the Sixties dream, or nightmare. A group of them with pit bulls barged their way through the crowd. They reminded me of bikers. No one could or would call them out. They had pit bulls.
I went back to the fringe of the crowd at The Arrow Stage to see Low. There was plenty of room to spread out. They did play Bluegrass songs, but they were done in a grungy almost psychedelic way. Their song “Witches” could have come off of Black Sabbath’s first album. On one song they just blasted feedback. It was a white noise version of “Happy Birthday.”
A scary looking Hippie Mama danced near the back of the crowd. Every once in a while she held a yoga pose. Later she was cracking the backs of young people who passed by. Looked like she could be an original from the Summer of Love.
A young woman had a map of the world on her back. All seven continents. She looked a bit confused when someone asked, “Can I take a picture?” Of the tattoo. Oh yeah, sure.
It was back to the Banjo Stage to wait for the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. I took the last seat at a picnic table in the back. It was a minor luxury. There was a small group from out of town. They said someone suggested they check out HSB. They couldn’t believe it. “What is Bluegrass music anyway?” They carefully smoked a joint. “There’s a cop right over there!” One of the locals told them not to worry about it. Then Glitterman joined us.
Glitterman shows up at most of the big local events. He’s covered in head to toe in a glitter costume, including glitter shoes that make him look taller. A glitter mask comes to a point over his head. He has a microphone that distorts his voice. He wanders the crowd and people love to get a picture with him. He solicits donations to pose with people.
“Can I join you? I need to take a break.” He took off his mask. “I didn’t know it was a mask,” someone cracked. Glitterman is a bald guy. I’ll guess 55. “That’s right! I’m old!” Glitterman said he donates some of the money to an organization that helps homeless youth. While we were sitting there people came by and thanked him for “What you’re doing.” Including one guy in total cowboy regalia. He had a replica Colt in a holster. At least I think it was a replica.
“The younger generation has no shame,” he told us. Young women will grab him in intimate places. He admits that, “They’re not as interested if they see me with my mask off.” Glitterman sees people from all over the world. We were surprised to hear he likes Americans the best. “They all have a sense of humor.” Glitterman says American culture is the best!
He’s another in the long line of San Francisco eccentrics. It’s a unique, twisted form of celebrity. I felt like I was hanging out with Bushman or the modern Emperor Norton. It was time for Glitterman to get back to work. Walking back into the crowd he yelled: “They told us LSD was bad for us!”
The MC said that we might notice that it’s “kind of smoky.” He informed us there was a fire in Napa. “Details are sketchy.” (There was a wildfire, but it wasn’t in Napa.)
Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. I finally spread the blanket far from the stage. It was now 4:00. This was traditional Bluegrass. They started with a lengthy instrumental and got loose. The sound reminded me of Old and In the Way.
Usually there’s another set of speakers set up in the crowd. They weren’t using them this year. I’m not sure if this is an attempt to keep the neighbors happy, but those of us in the back missed those speakers.
The tribe had taken over a shaded area under a large oak tree in the back of the Banjo stage. The street kids huddled under the protection of the tree. I’m not sure what was going on in there under the relative cover. Later, we did see two people getting busted there by large men in civilian clothes and prominent badges. The next day cyclone fences surrounded the tree and kept people out. The party was over in there.
Peter Rowan: “Drop The Bone” “Ragged Old Dream”
Bonnie Raitt was the main draw of the day. The hordes kept coming. Kathy met me and we were content to hang in the back. Raitt is great and it’s a treat to see her for free. “Let’s Give Them something to Talk About.” After “Angel From Montgomery” she said, “No more Misses Nice Guy,” and ripped some great slide guitar.
Raitt: “Here’s a Paul Gray song. It’s how not to get famous in show business.” “Are You Ready for the Thing Called Love?” Mike Finnegan joins for Blues song.
We headed for home.
Saturday. October 5.
I pushed myself to get out there for the 11:00 start. We’re about a half hour walk from the park. I headed to The Rooster for another Warren Hellman tribute: The Go To Hell Man Clan.
Before they started the MC made his announcements, including that any tarp spread out and left for more than an hour would be removed. People would spread out tarps, leave for hours and come back for the main act. Now, it’s not only discouraged, but is an official no-no. People still insist on bringing those tall lawn chairs.
The Go To Hell Man Clan was like a Hellman family picnic, and why not. They are picking up the tab. Most of the musicians were from Hellman’s band The Wronglers. “Don’t You Ever Let No Woman Rule Your Mind.” Hellman’s daughter says her mother is an invalid now with Alzheimer’s. She sings her mother’s favorite, “Pawn My Gold Watch and Chain.” Warren’s banjo teacher does the first song Warren played on banjo.
“Gotta Travel” “I’ve laid around and played around this old town too long ... Summer’s almost gone.”
“Streets of Laredo” Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad joins. Jimmy Dale Gilmore sang “Jackson” with Warren’s daughter, Olivia Hellman. “We got married in a fever!” Gilmore looks ancient. One of the daughters tells us that Hellman studied the Torah for years. Hallelujah means “sing together.” The daughters sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Steve Earle plays “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.”
It was early, but I cut to The Banjo Stage. This meant missing Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, but I had seen them last year. (There are tough choices at HSB.) Today I would set up early and try to stay out of the crowds. I got a spot on the hill pretty far back, but we would still be able to see better. Our plan was to stay and see “Holler Down the Hollow: A Salute to the Masters” and then the next act, The Jerry Douglas Band.
Every year I see Allison Brown without planning to. The band has a mellow, jazz like sound. It’s perfect for the early crowd. “Smarty Grass” she called it at one point. Brown is a former portfolio manager who left the world of financial services in a gamble that she could make it in the music business. She also runs Compass Records with her husband.
Tyson Rogers is outstanding on piano. “Sally Ann”
The next act was Tim O’Brien with Bryan Sutton & Mike Bub. “Get Out There and Dance” “Here’s one from my favorite Bluegrass singer, Bob Dylan.” I ‘think it was “Lay Down Your Weary Tune. “That was the shorter version,” O’Brien told us.
O’Brien comments on the weather. It’s another nearly perfect day. “It’s better than not being able to see you through the fog ... There seems to be a lot of fog inducer out there.”
From the new album Chicken and Eggs. “One More Day” “Hear That Whistle Blow”
O’Brien asks the crowd, “Have you ever heard of Woody Guthrie?” “Woody’s Dream” Then a song about an Italian vegetable vendor. “I Got Potatoes.” “Hangman’s Rag”
It was hard to hear at times and I noticed the sound crew looked to be struggling, especially at the beginning of acts.
We did get some unexpected shade from nearby trees. It was a big relief from the sun. I only wandered from the spot once for a walk. Lines for the port-a-potties were long. I went all the way to the back of the Star Stage to use the facilities. It was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen there, and it was still early. The bathroom situation was ridiculous, so I made a policy decision: no alcohol. It was readily available from local entrepreneurs, but it just wasn’t worth the ordeal of finding and waiting for bathrooms.
It had taken me a while to navigate the crowd, so I cut up a hill to a trail that paralleled the crowd at The Star Stage. Seeing the crowd from above was impressive. It really did look like a biblical Woodstock down there, and this was only one stage.
We were near the back, but we could see with binoculars. This year there is an HSB app. Kathy texted a friend who said she wasn’t going this year, but she would watch it streaming online. I was going to ask her to tell us what was going on onstage. Eventually we can just sit in the back of the crowd and watch the action from onstage on a cell phone.
Next at The Banjo Stage was Holler Down the Hollow: A Hardly Strictly Salute to the Masters. It’s a tribute to some of the artists that helped start HSB: Warren Hellman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. “Gentle On My Mind” A version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Jim Lauderdale joins for “The Race Is On ... The winner loses all.” He makes a crack about Rush Limbaugh. “You’re Running Wild” Buddy Miller plays on one song.
Jerry Douglas joins for “Rock Bottom.” Emmy Lou Harris comes onstage for “Salvation.” “Oh My Darling.” Emmy Lou is the darling of HSB. The crowd always gets excited when she makes a surprise appearance. Steve Earle joins for a railroad song, and “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.” Some song lyrics were changed to pay tribute to “The Masters.”
They do an encore: “Looks Like Rain”
No Blue Angels this year. No booming jets buzzing us.
Jerry Douglas Band was on next. I had found them while wandering around last year. Boz Scaggs would be playing at The Star Stage and we could hear people planning to head there. Tempting, but we stayed put. Douglas is the maestro of the dobro. He starts by saying he wants to adopt Coco Crisp’s name. He’s an A’s fan!
They start with a long instrumental. It sounds Sixties psychedelic.
“All Mussed Up” “Senia’s Lament” A long jam with Norwegian Wood in it.
I see a guy in a Pink Panther costume. He’s climbing a tree. There’s a million stories at HSB. This guy in a Pink Panter costume is just one of them.
Allison Krause joins. “My Guilty Heart is in Shame” “You Watch Me Walk Away” Great singing on this ballad. Then an odd song for HSB, but perfect for San Francisco: Thelma Houston’s Disco hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Many in the crowd get up and dust off old Disco moves. Last song: “Good Bye and So Long To You.”
The first Frank Chu sighting of the weekend. He was wandering the crowd with his sign warning of intergalactic injustices.
Most of the festival is eventually covered by a cloud of dust kicked up by the huge crowd.
Steve Earle and the Dukes. We’ve heard Steve Earle at HSB before, but we usually wind up way in the back. This time we were able to see better. We still debated seeing one of the other big acts closing today’s festival, but decided to just stay. “The Low Highway” “Twenty First Century Blues” “Pocket Full of Rain” They’re really cranking the songs out, and it’s hard to keep track of titles. Earle tells us about the new album, “Breaks My Heart.” “This City” A great version of “Copperhead Road.”
The band was swinging and it had a Hank Williams Country and Western sound. It was more rocking than usual for Steve Earle. He wore a straw cowboy hat. It was more of a Saturday night party atmosphere.
Then, the perfect song for the day. “Warm San Francisco Night.” A great HSB moment with the Eric Burdon classic. Locals know it’s a rare warm San Francisco night out on the avenues.
“Warren Hellman’s Banjo” Earle talked about Warren Hellman saving San Francisco City workers’ pensions. “Not all rich people are assholes.” We left a little early to get a jump on the crowd, but we could hear The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” as we left.
Sunday. October 6.
John Stuber and David Rice, two of The Albany All-Stars picked me up and we made it in plenty of time for the first song at the Rooster Stage. Tumbleweed Wanderers are a local band that had busked outside HSB for a couple of years. It must have been a thrill for them to be “inside” the festival playing onstage. They were rocking and they reminded me of an early Seventies bar band. Their songs were cheery and optimistic.
“Worn Down Welcome” “You Know What To Do” “Bag of Bones” “Freedom Town” “So Long Blues” Patrick Glen played great keyboards. The Rainbow Girls join for “Fire.” “We’ll be at The Great American Music Hall November 30th!” These guys really are living the dream. The last song was “You Got to Roll With the Times” “It ain’t 1969,” the young men told us.
We dashed to The Towers of Gold to get a spot for Richard Thompson. I wanted to see the first act, The Allah-Las. The web site said they were from L.A. and dedicated to the sound of surf, garage and punk. The “bio” program handed out in the park said they were a “grooving band with strong ties to the authentically LA-centric sounds of bands like The Byrds, Love and early Captain Beefheart.” That’s all I had to hear. We got there in time for their first song and I quickly declared they were the best band EVER! Every song sounded the same. Right out of the garage.
Some of the songs: “I Had It All” “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind” “Catamaran” “Don’t Lock Me In” “I Want It” “Sacred Sands” “Busman’s Holiday” “No Voodoo” Maybe my favorite HSB discovery.
It was still hot today. An old poet wandered the crowd. He was heavy set and had long white hair and beard. He held a small sign: “Red Hot Poetry.”
The Towers of Gold and the Star Stage are set up back to back. While one act gets ready to play you can hear the music from the other stage while you wait. We can hear Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers from The Star Stage. “One More Time”
I got a message to call my sister. My nephew Daniel, a student at Santa Cruz had been hit by a car the night before. Hit and run. I was assured he was “OK” but he did have a concussion. He had been unconscious, but was now awake. My sister said we shouldn’t come to see him yet.
It put some perspective on the aggravations of HSB. I didn’t really feel like “the show must go on,” but I did stay. I wondered if we were getting the full story. We heard he was “OK.” I wondered exactly what that meant.
(Daniel is recovering well from the injuries. He returned to school at Santa Cruz a week later.)
The MC talks about walking into a free Fairport Convention performance at UCLA many years ago. Right before they come onstage hard core fans move to the front of the stage. They didn’t exactly rush the stage, but they did subtly move in for a closer look.
“I Just Survive” After the first song Thompson greets the crowd: “How you doing hep cats?” “Sally B” “And now an Eighties song,” “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?”
“For Shame of Doing Wrong” “Can’t Win”
It was a relatively small crowd compared to the other throngs nearby. I was a bit surprised. It’s a rare chance to see him.
The band leaves the stage for one song. Thompson plays a powerful, solo acoustic “Vincent Black Shadow.” “Good Things Happen to Good People” “Walk of Death” “Tear Stained Letter”
I’m not a guitar player so much of what he was doing was lost on me, but it sounded like he was taking the guitar universe apart and putting it back together again for us.
We wandered a bit and wound up way back at The Star Stage for the end of Justin Townes Earle’s set. The last song was a Replacements song. Kathy tried to get to The Arrow Stage to see The Devil Makes Three, but the crowd was too much.
Then things got weird. Van Hart had met us for Richard Thompson. He’s a friend from way back. We’ve both been to too many sports and music events together to recount here, including most HSBs. We stood up to stretch our legs. Van passed out. A total header. There was no arm out at the last minute to break his fall. He was unconscious for a short time. He had a gash on his forehead and the bridge of his nose.
The people around us were great. Somebody ran to get the Rock medics. Van came to before the medics arrived, but he was woozy. It was obvious he needed medical attention for the cuts.
The medics got us on a golf cart. Cyclone fences create traffic lanes used by musicians and VIPs to move from stage to stage. We zipped along that part, but to get to the medical tent we would have to pass through part of the crowd. Our driver took charge. He kept yelling, “Medical! Medical!” People were cooperative when they realized what was going on and got out of the way, but it was still taking a long time.
A drunk homeless guy purposely put his foot under a tire of the golf cart. He laughed as it ran over his foot. The driver went nuts, “THAT IS NOT COOL!” He stopped and bitched the guy out some more. I couldn’t blame the driver, but it was taking time. Van wasn’t bleeding, but he did have to get the cuts attended to.
Van looked bad. He really looked like he’d been beat up. People did a double take as we went by. “What happened to you?” Most shouted encouragement. “You’ll be OK. You’ll be all right.” I think Van was becoming more himself and showed some humor about the situation. I know he didn’t realize how bad he looked. They checked him out at the tent, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the repairs. (I’m not knocking them. They were great and do amazing work under trying circumstances.) They did put some butterfly bandages on. They wanted Van to get to a hospital. We waited for a while to try to get another golf cart ride.
While we were sitting there Van alerted a guy at the front of the tent that he had dropped his wallet. He’s really coming to. We could hear Ralph Stanley from the nearby Banjo Stage. “Man of Constant Sorrow” Other people came into the tent. Most of them were young women looking for Band-Aids for blisters. An ambulance did bring in a guy who looked like a stroke victim. He was whisked away quickly.
There were no golf carts around. They suggested we go to a “cab stand.” We had waited for a while, and I got the vibes that we had to do something. We carefully walked to Fulton and 22nd. A full No. 5 MUNI bus went by. While I was on the cell phone, Van found a cab. He went to the hospital and got patched up.
I rejoined Kathy who had watched Chris Isaak. Isaak had drawn a big crowd and more were coming to see the next act, Gogol Bordello. I’d heard a lot about them, but we headed to the relative safety of The Towers of Gold Stage. There was plenty of room here to stretch out for The Time Jumpers. It was a more traditional Bluegrass way to end the day. “My Window Faces South”
We walked home. Streams of people were leaving the park. There were crowds at every bus stop. Full MUNI busses sped by. I wondered if we’d be coming to this event if we couldn’t just walk home.
HSB is still an amazing event. This one had more drama for me than past years. I always think it might be the last time I’ll be able to go for three days. The crowds are a challenge, but then a year goes by. You tend to remember the good things. HSB is a great way to see a ridiculous number of acts for free.
After showing the live stream, the web site has many of the acts archived online. The quality is better than most clips on Youtube. You can watch some of the acts you missed. It’s still better to see them live, but HSB is so big you can only see a fraction of the festival anyway.