Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival: San Francisco at it’s best

San Francisco had a lot going on last weekend. The Blue Angels were blasting their way from the Marin Headlands to San Francisco in a split second. Boat racers in America’s cup challenged each other to qualify for the big race in 2013. Street fairs & heritage parades dominated The Castro & North Beach. The bottom line was if you didn’t want to get stuck in traffic purgatory, get to your event early.

The wisest of the bay area and beyond got to Golden Gate Park’s newly named Hellman Hallow early last Friday, Saturday and Sunday for one of San Francisco’s newest and best traditions, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The best strategy for Hardly Strictly is to pick a spot, home-base it there, and go for a couple excursions to one of the 5 other stages. Traveling around the festival this year, there were reminders that this was a bittersweet year. Sole benefactor Warren Hellman passed away last December, and Warren was on the minds of many artists and music aficionados based on the amount of shout-outs and fanfare throughout the three-day musical delight.

SF was treated to three days of pretty excellent weather as well, especially since it’s been densely foggy during this supposed Indian Summer. The pristine weather framed hundreds of thousands of people in one of the cities’ most scenic areas, listening to A-list music for free. What could be better?

One thing that was quite obvious about the crowd is how freaky and/or tolerant everyone is, from children to grandparents. The festival can be oppressively crowded at times; there is no ticketing, perimeter fences or control on the influx of people really. But the crowd takes care of each other and at the same time celebrates the idea of being different. This microcosm that takes place in San Francisco the first weekend of October yearly signifies something that is wonderfully refreshing about SF compared to other major metropolises, where following trends and conforming are keys to fitting in at times. Enough babble about how fun and exciting this festival is – SF music fans enjoyed some inspiring musical performances as well.






Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis tours with “The Twins,” who appear to be twice as big as the diminutive Lewis.


Conor Oberst brings friends for Friday
For the second year, Conor Oberst was granted the honor of curating the Rooster stage. Conor Oberst played a majority of his set with his solo band, then invited Jenny Lewis & the twins for a couple songs, and finally invited all the friends from friday on stage for the finale. Many Bright Eyes songs were played, including the breathtaking duet “Lua” with Jenny Lewis.


Red Baraat

Saturday kicked off with a bang with the instand dance-party from “Red Baraat.” On Facebook they called their 11:40am set a “Reverse Headlining set,” which was actually appropriate. They had the crowd letting loose before noon. All the members of Red Baraat are super animated and have an infections presence.


The Lumineers

The Lumineers’ show in narrow Marx Meadow was perhaps the most packed set of the weekend. You wouldn’t know it from this picture. The excursion to the Rooster Stage revealed an unholy amount of people present. The only spot available was a little spot smushed up against a fence. But it was close to the stage and The Lumineers sounded great. This group is getting more popular by the day; As of today they have the 3rd most listened to album on Spotify in the US. My only regret was not being able to stand up and dance.


The Head & the Heart


The Head & the Heart’s set was highly anticipated, and it will be a lasting memory from the weekend for most. Their sound is incredibly inspiring live, even more so than their only album. This is a Must See Live band, even though they performed the exact same festival set they usually play. It didn’t matter. The Golden Gate Park setting was made for this group. This set was heavenly.


Chris Robinson Brotherhood

Chris Robinson apparently had come out earlier with Claypool Du Twang, Les Claypool’s new outfit. Later on during the final set of the day on the Star Stage, Chris Robinson Brotherhood played all their best songs, and melted faces like it was 1968 in Speedway Meadow. Speedway meadow is where the Grateful Dead played their free shows in San Francisco, and this helped SF become a hub of the counter-culture movement. Speedway meadow is now officially & appropriately named Hellman Hallow after Warren Hellman. Chris Robinson has been channeling the Grateful dead with CRB since he ended the Black Crows and started this jamband. Good choice Chris.


Soul Rebels


One of NOLA’s finest brass groups Soul Rebels got things going again on Sunday at the Towers of Gold stage. They incorporated many catchy cover songs into the repertoire like “Sweet Dreams,” which made the early show fun and upbeat.


The Knitters
The original punk-folk group turned in a mostly alternative country set.


The Del McCoury Band

A concerted effort was made to watch some legends in action this year after witnessing Buckethead, yes that Buckethead, show up 45 minutes late and then hand out merchandise in 2011. Maybe this was the wrong legend – a Nick Lowe excursion might have done the trick.


Patti Smith and her band


Patti Smith was a pleasant surprise. As the sun fully emerged Patti Smith emerged and owned her stage. She had positive, progressive advise to hand out throughout the show, but she did’t come off pushy. This living legend delivered completely.


Keller Williams, Steve Kimock & Kyle Hollingsworth featuring Bernie Worrell, Wally Ingram & Andy Hess


This set seemed like it would be a String Cheese Incident type one-off, and it was. They played five or six songs over the hour. Translation: Songs were 10-14 minutes song. The super-group covered the Talking Head’s song “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” which seemed especially appropriate, and is a consistant SCI cover over the years. They also played the Keller Williams song “Freaker by the Speaker,” which also seemed absolutely relevant in Golden Gate park this afternoon.


Conor Oberst – Late Night at The Fillmore


If you’re bummed the shows end at 7pm, there’s always the night shows in San Francisco nearby…There’s nothing wrong with bookending a truly awesome weekend Conor Oberst.


Until next year…

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival: 10 best looking sets


Subscribe to the “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival” playlist on Spotify.
View the full schedule at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass website.

The twelfth edition of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, from October 5th-7th in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, will prove to be a bittersweet occasion. Founder & 100% funder of this free festival Warren Hellman passed away this past December after a battle with leukemia. Hellman built his wealth as a co-founder of the private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, but always had a passion for music. Hellman called his festival a “selfish gift,” one that he, the musicians and the community could all enjoy. In 2006, Hellman said, “How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?” Hellman set up an endowment to make sure Hardly Strictly continues long past his death. The city of San Francisco honored Hellman after his passing by renaming Speedway Meadow “Hellman Hollow.”

So this will be the first year Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival takes place in Hellman Hollow. Coincidentally or by design, the artist select is going back to it’s roots before they added “Hardly” to the festival name. The first three years were ‘Strictly Bluegrass.’ Last year Buckethead performed. This year, most acts playing the festival are in some way countrified.

Here are 10 shows to consider attending:

Tribute to the Fouding Fathers: Warren Hellman, Earl Scruggs & Doc Watson

The world has also lost two legends in the past year that were fixtures at Hardly Strictly. Earl Scruggs & Doc Watson will only be with us in spirit, and the first set that pops off the artist list is this tribute to Hellman, Scruggs, Watson. Expect this set to end Saturday or Sunday on the Banjo Stage. Expect a superjam that will include Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Buddy Millar, and every performer that was close with trio being celebrated. Expect plenty of tears.

The Head & The Heart

This group from Seattle Washington was formed in 2009, have put out one self-titled album, and keep filling bigger venues by the month. In June they sold out a three show run at the Fillmore San Francisco. The Head & the Heart is popular for a good reason – they are a must see live act.

Rubblebucket

Rubblebucket is an American indie-dance band from Brooklyn, NY. They are captivating to watch, they put out a wall of sound, and they make you want to dance. There are eight musicians in the group, and they are lead by musical couple Alex Toth and Kalmia Traver.

Keller Williams, Steve Kimock & Kyle Hollingsworth featuring Bernie Worell, Wally Ingram & Andy Hess

This set looks like a Bonnaroo super-jam. Keller Williams has plenty of experience in this type of roll leading String Cheese Incident at many one-off shows. Steve Kimock is one of the best electric guitarists in the world. Seriously. And Kyle Hollingsworth is the keyboardist from String Cheese Incident. This should be a jam-filled fun time.

The Lumineers

Much like The Head & The Heart, The Lumineers have put out one hugely successful album and their star is rising. The three main components to the group ooze with charisma. The core of the band consists of Wesley Schultz on guitar and lead vocals, Jeremiah Fraites on drums, percussion, mandolin and vocals, and Neyla Pekarek on cello, mandolin, piano, and vocals. The songs from their self titled album are ridiculously catchy. This group from Denver, Colorado are a must see live act.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood

Do you like Chris Robinson’s voice and the music of the Grateful Dead? Yes? Than this is the show for you. Chris Robinson toured with Phil Lesh and friends for a couple years, and it clearly rubbed off on him. He ended the Black Crows and fully committed to this jam band. Neal Casal is a filthy guitarist who is right up there with Steve Kimock. It would not be surprising to see Phil Lesh or Bob Weir join the group for some Grateful Dead numbers.

Conor Brings Friends for Friday

For the first time in 2011, Conor Oberst was invited to curate his own stage on Friday, and Golden Gate Park was witness to Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Kurt Vile and other great acts. Conor has been invited back this year, and he’s bringing Jenny Lewis, Ben Kweller, Beachwood Sparks, Chuck Prophet & Mission Express, & Simone Felice. Conor should be performing his solo material on the Rooster Stage. Put in for a vacation day at work, get there early, and park your ass in Marx Meadow for a lovely afternoon.

The Civil Wars

The album “Barton Hollow” from The Civil Wars was released in early 2011 to massive critical success. The band won the Grammy Award for Best Country Duo/Group Performance and Best Folk Album in 2012. The duo, singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White, craft emotional songs that build with beautiful harmony, and should fit the tone of the weekend.

Red Baraat

As their website states, Red Baraat puts out “…a sound so powerful it has left the band in its own utterly unique and enviable class. These days you are as likely to find Red Baraat throwing down at an overheated and unannounced warehouse party in their Brooklyn neighborhood as you are at the Barbican or the Montreal Jazz Festival, or Lincoln Center.” NPR called Red Baraat one of their favorite live shows of 2011. These upbeat party-starters will get butts shaking.

Steve Earle & the Dukes (and Duchesses)

TV oriented people might know Steve Earle as Harley Watt, the actor who plays a musician on Treme. TV oriented people are wrong. Steve Earle is a musician who can also act. Earle is a political lefty from Texas, and he has the ability to entertain just as much with stage banter as he does with his songs. He performed a solo set at the Warren Hellman celebration concert in February, which included a song he wrote for Warren Hellman. We should hear that one again at 2012 Hardly Strictly.

10 More Shows Not to Miss:
ALO
Claypool Duo de Twang
Elvis Costelo Solo
Emmylou Harris
Heartless Bastards
Moonalice
Nick Lowe
Soul Rebels
The Chieftains
The New Orleans Bingo! Show

Subscribe to our “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival” playlist on Spotify.

Night Shows in San Francisco
Friday October 5th:
Dead Winter Carpenters – Brick & Mortar
Break Science – Mighty
Reckless Kelly – Slim’s
Dry the River – The Independent
Shpongle – The Warfield

Saturday October 6th:
Jenny Lewis – Great American Music Hall
The Soul Rebels – Boom Boom Room
John Talabot – Public Works
Big Gigantic – The Regency Ballroom
Glen Hansard – The Fillmore

Sunday October 7th:
Conor Oberst – The Fillmore
Michael Kiwanuka – The Independent

What sets are you looking forward to?