The artist lineup for the best free music festival (in the world?), Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, has been released and it’s as strong as ever. The festival began as “Strictly Bluegrass Festival” in 2001 through the hard work of Warren Hellman, the sole benefactor and founder of HSB who passed away in late 2011. Hellman has made sure the festival will continue on long after his death — the investment mogul, banjo performer and all around music fan routinely referred to his festival as a “selfish gift.”
After three years of “Strictly Bluegrass,” Hellman changed the name of the Festival to its current moniker and started inviting acts that strayed from pure bluegrass. In the past few years, San Francisco has witnessed performances from Buckethead, MC Hammer, and Broken Social Scene at Hardly Strictly, so clearly the fest has evolved over 13 years.
And this year there are plenty of acts that are “Hardly Bluegrass” — here are the 10 best looking non-bluegrass shows (and a bonus wildcard) October 4-6, 2013 in Golden Gate Park.
Father John Misty
For a guy that gained traction as ‘the drummer from Fleet Foxes,’ things have certainly changed in the course of 1.5 years for Father John Misty. Now, FJM is more well-known than the group that helped catapult him into contemporary culture. This entire conversation is a moot point as J. Tillman has presented himself as the twenty-first century troubadour, mixing a mentality dripping in Bohemianism with over-the-top stage theatrics. The result is a debaucherous yet beautiful live music performance that should fit nicely into HSB.
And his fall tour promises a new experience — it’s billed as a “Solo Variety Show” featuring comedian Kate Berlant. Doesn’t a Father John Misty show already seem like a solo variety hour? FJM’s San Francisco shows in October will kick off this fall tour, so if you can’t bear the possibility of showing up late to Golden Gate Park and settling on a poor spot, reserve a ticket for his Thursday pre-HSB show at Slim’s. -MIKE FRASH
Sonny and the Sunsets
With such a vast array of acts present on the many stages over the 3 days, it’s a wonder so many local artists are able to be present on the lineup. Well this year, Sonny Smith, and his band the Sunsets, is likely to win over many new fans with his infectious take on folkified psych-pop with a flair for catchy lyrics and a rousing stage presence. The multifaceted front-man connects to his audiences in very intimate ways, so try to catch this rising star before he’s out of reach. -KEVIN QUANDT
First Aid Kit
For a duo whose greatest single (so far) revolves around “Emmylou,” “June,” “Gram” & “Johnny”, it’s really not too surprising to see the sisterly Swedish group First Aid Kit on the Hardly Strictly bill. If the schedule doesn’t preclude them, the ladies from First Aid Kit can catch Emmylou Harris’ set in the flesh at Hellman Hollow (most likely on Sunday).
When thinking about future Hardly Strictly mainstays amongst the new offerings this year, First Aid Kit just seems like the perfect fit going forward. And who would be more perfect than third year “Friday Friends” curator of the Rooster stage Conor Oberst to introduce the group to the festival?
Oberst made a cameo on the final track of First Aid Kit’s excellent 2012 LP The Lion’s Roar, and Klara Söderberg spoke about the experience last year: “People say you should never meet your idols. But for us it’s been the opposite, but that’s because our idols are the coolest, sweetest people.” Klara was referencing Oberst & company, so be sure to get to Golden Gate Park early Friday to secure your spot in Marx Meadow. Expect Oberst to make an appearance with First Aid Kit. -MF
Ian MacKaye is not a name most would consider to be present on the bill for Hardly Strictly, but alas Conor Oberst invited the former Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman and his wife Amy Farina to his showcase on Friday. The Evens have a stripped-down punk-folk sound delivered in a guitar and drums format with husband and wife handling vocals equally. McCaye’s most consistent project after Fugazi demonstrates that a mellowed out sound is where his passions are now after years of hardcore and punk. You won’t be the only one calling in sick on Friday, October 4th. -KQ
Gypsy-punk ensemble Gogol Bordello certainly fall into the “Hardly Bluegrass” category of this quintessential SF music fest. Eugene Hütz is the lead force of the bombastic, ecstatic curators of weird and crazy, but as many as five performers step into the spotlight to contribute vocals throughout any given song. A Gogol Bordello performance boarders on surrealism, projecting a humorous party atmosphere that is irresistible to join in on — just ask anyone in their small but loyal (and rabid) fan club near the front. -MF
Hopefully the throngs of attendees will be rewarded with one of those perfect Indian Summer weekends; sun shining, a few patchy clouds and a steady on-shore breeze from the Pacific. Essentially a perfect storm to enjoy the lo-fi, surfed-out sound of LA band, the Allah-las. These garage rock wunderkids have been blazing a trail across the Western US with their melancholic, yet optimistic, take on traditional rock and roll. Tinges of psychedelia will certainly nod to the origins of loud, outdoor music events in Golden Gate Park. -KQ
The Wood Brothers
The Wood Brothers, Oliver and Chris Wood, procure roots-influenced folk rock that is simple and effective. The focus here is on straightforward lyricism, along with basic acoustic guitar and upright bass with simple rhythm backing. Chris Wood is better known as the bassist from Medeski, Martin & Wood, a jazz-fusion trio that has often included John Scofield in recent years. While you won’t hear a lick of vocals with MMW, The Wood Brothers should get music fans swooning and swaying come October.-MF
These Minnesotan slow rockers have been mystifying their audiences for 20 years with a blend of muted tempos and minimized song stylings. Low are considered ‘slowcore’ mavericks, and have been heralded for dynamic stage shows that reach exploratory levels, especially in reinterpretations of cover songs from Toto to Outkast. An “anything goes” attitude is needed for the large crowds and distances at HSB, so might as well take another chance with indie demigods, Low. -KQ
Named after the border town of Calexico California, Calexico aren’t your typical indie group. Aspects of Latin, country, jazz & rock can be gleaned from this band that has been going at it for about 15 years — but the overall product sounds mysterious and rambling. Joey Burns & John Convertino are the two constants in Calexico, who continue to tour on their 2012 LP, Algiers. Calexico will also be performing at Slim’s Friday night. -MF
50 years of soul singing makes Betty Lavette one of the vets in the industry, even if she is still a relatively new name to music lovers. A wide range of influences also lends to a truly unique voice and writing style, which is likely to thrill patrons of all ages. Her rise to fame was relatively late in her career, but she has since graced many of the biggest stages and collaborated with a “who’s who” of legends such as Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. A sunday morning slot could be a perfect way to ease into the final day. -KQ
String Cheese Incident
String Cheese Incident and the circus that follows the group on the road will most likely bring their joyful sound to the Satr Stage. Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboardist of SCI, appeared last year alongside Steve Kimock, Keller Williams & Bernie Worrell Sunday evening at the Star Stage — so maybe Hollingsworth (and Keller) convinced the rest of the group that HSB is a worthwhile festival to contribute to, for all the right reasons.
Will SCI play to the roots of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass by honing in on bluegrass numbers like “Good Times Around the Bend” & “Restless Wind”, or will the group curate a ‘normal’ show by incorporating jamtronica classics like “Rivertrance” or mind-melters like “Miss Brown’s Teahouse” or “Jellyfish”? -MF