Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. 2012.
The media was predicting that the first weekend in October would be “Eventageddon.” That weekend was when Fleet Week, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the Columbus Day Parade were usually held. This year there would also be America’s Cup yacht racing on the Bay, a Giants playoff game and a Forty-Niners football game. Any two of these events could cause traffic problems. Huge crowds were predicted for America’s Cup alone.
The Blue Angels would be buzzing above Larry Ellison’s championship yacht. There would be people all along the waterfront. It made sense to just go to the event in our neighborhood, The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It would be the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival after the passing of its founder and generous sponsor, Warren Hellman.
This won’t be a play by play. Some song titles are approximations. For amusement purposes only.
There are three days of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass now. Friday is the most laid back day. I arrived at The Rooster Stage to catch most of the first act, Simone Felice. She’s a female singer with a big Afro. It was a mellow sound to start the day. I checked out a couple of songs, but they were too nice. It’s not as crowded on Friday, so it could be the only day that was good for wandering.
Signs told us: “Don’t chain bikes to fences. You will be towed.”
John Reilly & Friends. I didn’t realize it was the movie actor. “We play traditional Country and Western,” he told us. “Muleskinner Blues” “Crazy Arms” “Crying Time” The singer, Becky Stark mentioned “the vaporizer going in the front row.” Tom Brousseau joins. “Lonesome Train” I head to The Rooster Stage. Seeing Chuck Prophet is a priority.
It’s early, but I get a spot with a good view from the side of the stage. The MC tells us that, “Somebody did a bad thing.” Someone took down the no parking signs on Fulton Street. The authorities had corrected the situation. The problem is that if you parked there you will be towed even though there was no sign up when you parked!
Our MC also announces that there will be no taping allowed. He suggests we, “Live in the moment.” There’s a vague promise that footage will be online later. Past year’s performances were quickly posted online.
Tex had told me about Chuck Prophet. He writes great songs and sounds like Ray Davies sometimes. “Storm Across the Sea” “Sand In My Shoes” “Play That Song Again.” His songs are about San Francisco’s past and historic characters.
“Halloween Is Gone” laments the demise of the holiday. Halloween is not for kids in San Francisco. “White Night, Big City” touches on the Milk and Moscone slayings. “Temple Beautiful” celebrates the early Punk scene in San Francisco. The Temple nightclub in the song was later the site of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. Prophet’s big hit is “Who Put the Bomp.”
The set gained momentum as it went on. The other acts had been nice, but this was the first time this weekend that the crowd really got going. Hardly Strictly had really begun.
I stopped at The Banjo stage for a bit of Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys. They played old fashioned Honky Tonk. There I ran into Jim Burke, a PSE trader from way back. We don’t plan to meet, but we run into each other almost every year.
We went to The Star to see Chris Carrabba. They did a cover of Talking Heads “There She Was.” “Hard Times Aren’t Going to Ruin My Mind.” They’re a young band and they did a Guy Clarke song, “The Kid.” The singer said that when he first heard it, he thought Guy Clarke had written it with him in mind. “How could he have known me so well?”
Jerry Douglas was playing at the Banjo Stage. It sounded like the Sixties. I’m sorry I missed a couple of songs. This was one of the highlights of the year! Jerry Douglas announces that they’re going to do a Bluegrass song that was recorded by The Weather Report! Douglas plays great dobro and later switches to slide guitar. “I’m Almost Done” They finish with a riff on “Norwegian Wood.”
Tribes of street kids hung out in the back of The Banjo Stage area. It’s not far from Haight Street. Their clothes were torn and filthy. They looked like they just walked out of a Dickens novel.
One guy with long hair put on a juggling exhibition. He carried a bucket on the end of a pole about eight feet high. He juggled balls and once in a while popped one into the bucket. He drew a crowd, but I don’t think he made much money. These kids looked crazy. We wondered if they were as crazy as we used to be.
The Time Jumpers played at the Banjo Stage. They were a return to Bluegrass. “Nothing But the Blues” “Love Ain’t for the Faint Hearted” Their version of Bob Wills’ “Corrina” was a big crowd favorite.
Kathy met me for Elvis Costello Solo. It really was solo. “Welcome to the Working World” “King of America” Elvis stood alone onstage. He did a cover of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” “Every Day I Write the Book” “Walking My Baby Back Home”
The beginning of “Watching the Detectives” was blasted on tape. Elvis picked the song up, still alone onstage playing guitar. The tape was the only accompaniment for Elvis today. It was odd to hear him using tape, but he did pull it off.
It was a stirring performance, especially for hard core Elvis Costello fans. We were far in the back and decided to move on. It wasn’t a huge crush of people at The Banjo, but we wanted to wander.
The Star Stage had Reignwolf. It’s still a surprise to see a Heavy Mental act at Hardly Strictly. A guy sat at the drums and played guitar and drums at the same time. An idea so stupid no one ever thought of it before. It was a change from the genius of Elvis Costello. Two band members joined: “Stitch and Texas Joe.” People were drifting over to see Elvis, so there was a lot more room here. We listened to a couple of songs. They were rocking, but it was certainly not an act we’d bother to see in the real world. We were glad to check them out for free at Hardly Strictly.
Friday is definitely the day to go to Hardly Strictly. People do pour in late to see the main acts, but in the early going it really is what Hardly Strictly was all about.
Day Two. Saturday. I show up a little later today and enter the park near the Rooster Stage. It’s pushing 12:30 when I find a spot way in the back at The Banjo Stage for Allison Brown Quartet. Stuart Duncan is on fiddle. I see this group almost every year, although it’s by chance. Buddy Miller will be next, and I’ve learned to never miss him at Hardly Strictly. He’ll be followed by the “Tribute to the Founding Fathers.”
Buddy Miller starts with “There Is a Higher Power” and “Deep Blue Sea.” Patty Griffin joins for “Gasoline and Matches.” Jim Lauderdale joins for “I’ve Lost the Job of Loving You.” The whole set is another highlight of the weekend. The Blue Angels buzz overhead for the first time. It was still possible to walk up to the side of the stage and I got a better look. Emmy Lou Harris was sitting onstage. She later joins the band for a song with another guest, Robert Plant, who’s announced almost as an afterthought. Oh yeah, he’s here too. Plant didn’t sing, but he did go onstage and play harmonica.
After some “technical difficulties” they do the Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton song “Wide Road Ahead” and finish with “All Tears Washed Away.”
Bill Kirchen was at The Arrow. I could walk over, but I took a pass. Slowing down.
“Tribute to the Founding Fathers. Warren Hellman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.” We expected something special from this one and it was. The “Founding Fathers” had all passed since the last Hardly Strictly. It drew a big crowd. We were way in the back. Sometimes the sound from the nearby Star Stage “bled in.” It was a unique event, but for some odd reason, it seemed to draw the more casual fans who talked too much during the music.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band started off with “Nearer My God to Thee.” It was a mournful start, but livened up a bit with “Ramble All Around.” The band played two fast paced Earl Scruggs Bluegrass reels. Tim O’Brien sang “Deep River Blues” during which he told a long story about meeting Doc Watson. It was rambling, but humorous.
The Wronglers joined for a lively “Would You Love Me If I Wandered Back Tonight?” Emmy Lou Harris joined and sang with Heidi Clare and another Wrongler. “Oh My Darling.” Gary Scruggs came onstage for “Easy Chair.” Steve Earle joined for the finale.
It was another great tribute to Warren and his friends, but I was surprised at how downbeat it was. I think the huge crowd expected a more upbeat tribute. Some of the lyrics were unique for this event. There were references and tributes to “The Founding Fathers.” I think the crowd expected a big surprise.
Next up were The Chieftains. We were able to go up the side and get a better view. They put on a great show with Irish dancers. Not every song sounded Irish. They did more “World Music.” They were great, but they didn’t do a Rebel song. They did do “Kerry Fergus.”
We saw Steve Earle last year and knew he would draw a huge crowd, so we chose to see The Flatlanders. That’s how crazy Hardly Strictly is. We leave Steve Earle to see The Flatlanders. It was at The Arrow Stage and even though there were a lot of fans there, there was more room to move around. The crowd and the band seemed looser. Saturday night at the roadhouse! The priority here was having a good time.
Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock: “Julia” “I’ll Take Her Home to the Mountains” Joel Guzman has great accordion spots. “Have you Ever Seen Dallas from a DC9 At Night” “Pay the Alligator.” It had been a long day for most in the crowd and people started leaving. We got near the stage for the encore.
Our route out of Golden Gate Park took us past The Rooster Stage so we got our annual look at Robert Earl Keen. “I Gotta Go.” A large group of people were behind Keen onstage for a cover of The Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie.” “One way or another...” It was a merry, rocking end to Saturday at Hardly Strictly.
I arrive early and make the opening for the last day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. My plan was to see Dry Branch Fire Squad. There have been so many bands I’ve discovered at this festival over the years, most of them by chance. I love the Dry Branch Fire Squad’s sense of humor. I was coming in on my usual route past The Rooster Stage and spotted Buddy Miller onstage before Jim Lauderdale’s set. I was just going to hear a couple of songs, but stayed for the whole set.
“Live Like Thunder.” Lauderdale says, “This is a song I wrote with Robert Hunter,” “Matchwood River.” Things are getting off to a fast start here. Fats Kaplan is on steel guitar and other instruments. Nick Lowe joins for “Always on the Outside” and “King of Broken Hearts.”
Miller and Lauderdale have a new CD, “Buddy and Jim.” Miller says, “It took us three days to make it, but it sounds like it took four days.” “I Love You More Than I Can Show” Lauderdale does a solo acoustic song. He tells us that, “We have to give the horses a rest.” “Half Way Down.”
My plan today is to start at The Star Stage for The Knitters and a tribute to Doug Sahm and go to the Towers of Gold stage later for Patti Smith. Patti Smith and Exene on the same day! It’s already pretty crowded when I arrive for Giant Giant Sand. It’s a bit overcast. They play a mellow Jazz tune. Really. It’s another Hardly Strictly surprise. There’s a song about Going Home and then “Paranico.” It’s a great band. When it’s over the MC thanks John Paul Jones for “helping out.” He also mentions that Robert Plant joined Patti Griffin onstage earlier that morning. So, two former members of Zeppelin are wandering around Hardly Strictly. Joel Selvin’s article in the Chronicle says Plant and Griffin just got married!
The speakers at the Star Stage play The Milk Carton Kids set from the neighboring Towers of Gold Stage. We get a spot on a small hill, but we’re still pretty far back.
The Knitters start with “Poor Little Critter on the Road” and the sun comes out a bit. “Burning House of Love” A car crash song: “I Couldn’t Hear Anyone Pray.” “We Don’t Need to Try Anymore.” The Knitters are sounding hot and the crowd is digging it. I went up to the side of the stage to get a better look at Exene. She does look like a psycho-billy. She’s wearing combat boots and a red apron that says, “To Hell With Housework.” It’s early, but the crowd is rocking! “Hand Me Down My Rocking Cane.” They dedicate a song to Warren Hellman, “Give Me Flowers While I’m Living.” Exene really means it.
John Doe says the after party will be in Dave Alvin’s hotel room. “But, you have to travel to 1981 to get there.” “I Got My Baby Out of Jail.” “Stranger to Me” “New World” “Someday It’s Going to Rain” The finale: “Wrecking Ball” The crowd roars at the end of a rocking set.
Doug Sahm’s Phantom Playboys. A tribute to Doug Sahm. The MC tells us that Sahm was an A’s fan. I vaguely remember him doing a National Anthem. “He’ll be cheering for the A’s to sweep three. Now we know the A’s lost Game Two.
The tribute band was put together by Boz Scaggs: Dave Alvin, Delbert McClinton, Jimmie Vaughn and others. “Money Over Love” “Dynamite Woman” “A Fool to Care” “What’s Your Name?”
“Mendocino” is a big crowd favorite. I thought of Doug Nunn and friends who moved there years ago. “Do you know how to get to San Antone?” “What Happened to the Real Old Texan in Me?” Steve Earle joins for the big hit: “She’s About a Mover.” “So Long, Hate to See You Go.” The crowd was listening, but really buzzing during this set.
It was time to head over to the Towers of Gold Stage. Moving around from stage to stage has become more of a problem at Hardly Strictly in recent years, especially for the big names. When we saw Patti Smith at last year’s festival, we were able to stand not too far from the stage on the far right. We didn’t get near that spot today.
Dwight Yoakam was playing and it was one of those Hardly Strictly biblical migration scenes that we had avoided so far this weekend. We headed way to the back and got an OK spot near some speakers.
Dwight Yoakam is another big Hardly Strictly surprise. He’s a big star and the band had a big rocking sound. It was more of a Heavy Metal presentation than Country and Western. Very professional. Very big. “I’ll Take You Back One More Time” They play a big crowd favorite: “Act Naturally” the song Ringo covered. “They’re going to put me in the movies!” “Little Sister.”
This was real big time Country and Western show business professionalism. Dwight Yoakam looked like a geezer, but the band members were young. They wore wild shiny cowboy outfits. Kathy noted that there was “a lot of bling” onstage. “I’m a Honky Tonk Man” Dwight tells us that he’s going to play something that, “I want to play.” They do a great version of “Sloop John B.” It’s another great Sixties song. We’ve heard some great ones today.
Patti Smith would be next at this stage. There was the Hardly Strictly human ebb and flow. Country and Western fans left for other stages. More Punk looking fans started coming in. Patti Smith is still a big draw. Especially for a chance to see her for free. I was getting excited. It’s like seeing one of The Rolling Stones.
The crowd was pumped and rose to give Patti a big welcome. They started with a song about breaking rules. The sun was starting to set. The musicians were facing the sun. Patti put on sunglasses. She later apologized, “It’s kind of bright up here.”
She told us that she wrote the next song with Tom Verlaine. They would go out in the middle of the night and look for UFOs. “We promised each other that if one of us was abducted we’d come back for each other. That was my romance with him.” “When Will You Return?”
There are more tales of mystical experience. “We Shall Meet Again” “Shake the Ghost.” Patti donned a guitar for a wild jam: “Southern Cross.” There was a big crowd reaction for “Because the Night.” They rocked the crowd with the title song from their new CD: “Banga.” Patti encouraged the crowd with “People Have the Power” and finished with “Gloria.” I don’t think she could have left that one out with a crowd this size.
Patti spelled out Pussy Riot and mentioned their plight. (They had just been convicted in Russia that week.) After the last song she came back out and made an impassioned plea to the crowd. “If you’re suffering from the economy don’t give up ... As long as you have your imagination” things will work out.
It was time to wind down. We stopped at The Star Stage and saw some of “Keller Williams, Steve Kimock and Kyle Hollingsworth.” It was great to hear their old Sixties sound in the former Speedway Meadow. They did a great “Honky Tonk Woman.”
Next stop was The Arrow Stage. This was the “Grateful Dead stage” and drew kindred spirits. We were working our way back home. Alo had the next generation of Deadheads dancing.
The big finale every year is Emmy Lou Harris, but we didn’t go near that crowd. We did stop on our way out at The Rooster Stage for the end of The Civil Wars’ set. They drew a large, enthusiastic crowd.
This was the first Hardly Strictly since Warren Hellman’s passing. He was mentioned and his presence was felt all three days. He left a trust fund so the festival could continue.
Even with all the other events Hardly Strictly still drew a huge crowd. The days of wandering casually from stage to stage may be over. With some planning the crush of the big crowds can be avoided. You do ten or eleven of these things and you pick up some tricks.