Recently, me and my fabulous wife Maggie had the great pleasure and opportunity to visit San Francisco. One of the highlights of the trip was attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass event in Golden Gate Park. HSB is a free event sponsored by venture capitalist Warren Hellman. Warren started the festival ten years ago to celebrate and promote bluegrass. Over the years, it has grown significantly. It started as a one day event with one stage and six bands, to this year's 3 days, 6 stages and over 90 acts. The event has also shifted from strictly bluegrass to all things Americana from Connor Oberst to Robert Plant. This year over 600,000 people attended the event. While, there was a mass of people, it never seemed overcrowded or unruly. In fact, as a veteran festival goer, it had to be one of the mellowest and attentive events I've attended. A big shout out to Brad Madison of Mongrel Booking agency for making us feel like VIP's.
Here's who we saw; We arrived around noon and got a great spot on the hill in front of the Star stage. The first act we saw was Jason Isbell (formerly of Drive By Truckers). He was ok, songs sounded pretty much the same and the stand outs were Truckers songs. I wish he would get back with his old band, they miss him and he misses them. Next up was Ruthie Foster(one of many Narrows alums), she kicked it up with some great soul singing and grooving. The crowd really dug her. We then headed back to our spot to see Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. Definitely one of the Festival's highlights, two legends singing some of the greatest songs of the 20th Century. Very inspiring to see two old coots, ragged and rocking through a great set of music. Another fest highlight was the brilliant duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. There had to be over 100,000 people listening to the hushed and intricate stylings of the duo. Next up someone me and Maggie have seen numerous times dating back to our first Jazz Fest, soul legend Irma Thomas. Irma led her crisp band through N'Awlins standards as well her brilliant take of "Time is On My Side" It was a great day of music, people watching and a good day for humanity as whole. Live music still has an uncanny way of bringing people together to celebrate life and the pursuit of happiness.
We got an early start on Sunday as our gracious host Brad picked us up around 9 a.m. for what would be a joyous day of music and friendship. We started with breakfast in the Haight which has lost most of its charm but we found an old school breakfast joint that still maintained it's charm. We arrived at the Fest at 11 caught newbie Jessica Lea Mayfield, kinda liked her record, thought the show was very boring. I just don't get the angst indie rock thing. We headed over to the small Porch stage to catch Dive Bar Dukes who actually won a contest to play at the event. Playing drums for this bluegrassy outfit was Ollabelle's Tony Leone. They sounded fun with some very good fiddle playing. We then made the long walk back to the other end of the event where the incomparable Dr. John was about to hit the stage Our guide Brad had hooked us up with backstage passes so we watched the show up close and personal with the likes of Wavy Gravy, Bonnie Raitt and Steve Earle. The Doctor was smoking and had the whole field dancing. Justin Townes Earle played a solid set with his daddy watching him intently. JTE will be playing the Narrows December 4, he is not to be missed. The real surprise act of the day for me was Devotchka. It was a gypsy thing meets The Clash, real fun with lotsa foot stomping tunes and great showmanship.We then headed out of the masses with the sounds of Dark Star Orchestra playing in the background . A fitting way to end the day. I highly recommend Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to all the music geeks and freaks. Definitely one of the best music festivals in the US
San Francisco is a great city with plenty of culture and great restaurants. If you go, make sure you bike the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalitio and into Tiburon. A truly magical ride.