Mist-flanked cypress trees, families sprawled out on blankets, hippies dancing amongst clouds of marijuana smoke – this was the colorful scene surrounding the 10th year of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, California last weekend. High in the “fog belt” area of the city lies the stage for this massive, free festival in the sprawling rectangle of Golden Gate Park, an epicenter of music and counterculture for California over the last 100+ years.
Built in the 1870’s out of the undeveloped sand dunes called “outside lands” (hence the name of the Outside Lands Music Festival held here every August), the park was meant to rival New York City’s Central Park. And rival it, it did. Golden Gate Park ended up becoming a wonderful staging point for the various movements that the City by the Bay became known for over the last decade, such as the Human Be-In hippie movement with Jefferson Airplane, or The Greatful Dead and The Summer of Love progressive social phenomenon which brought 100,000 people to the park and the Upper Haight neighborhood. Today, the message of love, freedom, and unity in the park still lives with the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (or HSB).
The thing that makes the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival special is the fact that it is free, and not free in the sense that it was shilled out by a massive corporate sponsor. In this case we have philanthropic multi-billionaire Warren Hellman who, since 2001, has funded the festival every year out of his love for music and his appreciation for San Francisco. It started out as a pure bluegrass exhibition, but as it grew more popular with the masses, the genres were stretched (hence the “Hardly”) with more and more eclectic acts being added to the three-day event.
A free ticket price does make for some difficulties. Because it’s free, it seems like everyone in Northern California attends and this year there was an estimated 600,000 people attending the event (350,000 on Sunday alone). The stages are step up along a narrow stretch of road within the park, creating a huge bottleneck during peak hours of the festivals, in addition to hellish line-ups for portable toilets and food vendors. There was a sporadic shuttle that you could take into the festival for $2, other than that you had to find parking outside of the park and prepare for a long hike in. There was also some kerfuffle with the lack of enough bike racks to handle the crowds – seemed like every tree in the park had a bike tethered to it.
That said, there wasn’t really too much you could complain about, especially since you didn’t pay anything for it. Though drinking in the park was allowed and everyone seemed to have a can of beer or jug of wine in hand, I never saw anyone get too inebriated or dangerous. Keeping with the true peaceful spirit of the park, everyone just seemed to have a safe, good time. (However, it wouldn’t have killed some people to wear deodorant.) But hey, it wasn’t all just dreadlocked hippies and Mission District hipsters. There were lots of families with children, elderly couples camped out with lawn chairs and coolers, roaming packs of smiling teenagers, carefree couples, and what seemed like all the wagging pooches in the Bay Area. There was an overall social atmosphere that felt like you were there to hang out and talk to people just as much as you were there for the music. It was very casual, very chill, and very Californian.
Friday, October 1st
Star Stage, 11:30 a.m.
Unfortunately, due to logistical issues, I was only able to catch one act on Friday and I ended up going to the one that really makes the term “Hardly” hit home. It was none other than MC Hammer of Hammertime and Hammer pants fame. Why was Hammer there? I’m still not sure, other than it had something to do with an educational aspect for children. That would explain why the entire front section of the stage turned into a corral for about 500 dancing schoolkids.
Either way, he drew quite a crowd that morning as people gathered around the fence to watch MC Hammer perform hits such as “Pray”, “2 Legit 2 Quit”, and “Can’t Touch This”. I’m actually laughing as I type those songs out and that was pretty much the same reaction during the set. Not that it was bad by any means, it was just hilarious to watch a crowd of people dance like idiots and yell “Stop! Hammer time!” between fits of giggles. There were a few older women in front of us really get into it, chugging back on their beers, telling us joyfully “Our kids are at school!” Either that or they were with the other schoolkids who were getting just as in to it as the adults.
Regardless, Hammer sounded great; the sound was bumping and his dancers were actually pretty amazing. All in all, it was a really odd yet infectiously fun way for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to kick off.
Saturday, October 2nd
Porch Stage, 1:05 p.m.
Singer/writer/artist Exene Cervenka has had an interesting and progressive past. She co-fronted the revered LA punk band X in the late 1970’s with her then-boyfriend John Doe, which released seven albums including the prolific Wild Gift, she’s written several books, and had a one-person exhibition of her journals at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Nowadays, she fronts a band called The Knitters and does her own solo work just as Exene, which I got to see at HSB.
Exene and her band charmed the growing crowd at the Porch stage with her soft music and warm stage presence. It was not at all like anything she did with X – the punk had now been replaced with soft acoustics, haunting violin, and simple songwriting. It wasn’t anything spectacular but she did have the audience hanging onto her every word, with a few streaks of her rock and roll past coming through at opportune moments.
Songwriter Circle with Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, John Doe & David Olney
Rooster Stage, 2:30 p.m.
Next up was the Songwriter Circle, consisting of such music legends as the aforementioned John Doe, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, and David Olney. The act was pretty much as the name suggested, except of being in a circle, they all took turns performing in a line, one after the other. It was actually a really neat way of doing things, allowing each artist to sing their songs and give an ebb and flow of variety to the surprisingly long set. Given the range of voices and backgrounds, they drew a massive crowd too with people flanking the stage from all sides, even all the way up into the wooded crests.
I didn’t know too much about David Olney (even though his songs have been covered by Johnny Cash), but he sang a wonderful, gruff song called “Titanic”, the only one about that fateful accident “sung from the iceberg’s point of view.” The suited John Doe was the more rousing singer of the bunch and the only one who stood up to perform, a dapper contrast to the rustic environment. Like Olney, Keen, and Earle, he stuck to a lot of his hits such as “The Golden State” (which naturally had everyone singing along) and the deep “Burning House of Love” but he also sang a few songs off of his new album as well.
It was a wonderfully fitting show for the time and place. A sea of people all seated quietly, intensely immersed in the swooning acoustics, soulful singing, and whispering fog that rushed past the stage and into the trees.
Sunday, October 3rd
Star Stage, 11:40 a.m.
Sunday was one of the most packed, artist-filled days in Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’s history, with Indigo Girls, Patti Smith, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Emmylou Harris, and Rosanna Cash just to name a few. But because the day was so loaded, it made it impossible for me to see everything I wanted to. So I stuck to the Star Stage, which ended up being a great idea in the end. Tons of talented artists in a row from one comfy spot – what more could you want?
Opening up that stage was singer/songwriter Martin Sexton, whose wide-ranging vocals and beatboxing skills gave his folk music surprising depth and edge that is lacking in a lot of acoustic-driven music. Despite the fact that it was still early in the day, he had the sprawling area around the stage packed with fans eager to hear his famous mix of gospel, rock, blues, country and soul carried by his crystal-clear voice and amazing falsetto.
Star Stage, 1:15 p.m.
I knew Umphrey’s McGee was going to be a wild ride compared to Martin Sexton, because as soon as the Sexton crowd cleared out, we had our blanket trampled by a bunch of hippies running to the stage. Turns out Umphrey’s McGee is just a step up from The Grateful Dead or Phish – a young, fun jam band based around “progressive improvisation” and, well, jamming. No wonder they brought a crowd that a friend of mine remarked she hadn’t seen in Golden Gate Park since the 1970’s.
Everyone was really into it too. It was probably a combination of the pot smoke, copious amounts of alcohol, and the sun finally making its appearance for the first time. Or it could have had something to with the music. Even though the songs seemed like they were about 10 minutes long each, the bongos, rolling bass, and guitarist Brendan Bayliss’ soothing voice kept the crowd moving and bopping for the entire set. This was the first moment I really felt like I was experiencing San Francisco’s notorious counterculture scene first-hand. The communal experience of listening to a jamband in the California sunshine will do that to you.
Towers of Gold Stage, 2:05 p.m.
Backing on to the Star Stage is the Towers of Gold Stage, which meant during the break between sets you could hear the Gold Stage perfectly and as such we were all treated to a pleasing set by Randy Newman. Know for his countless awards, this Disney legend (and Family Guy punching bag) brought his droll, affable persona and scores of hits to the festival. Everything from “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “Short People” to “A Fool in Love” was covered with his the famous Newman charm and enthusiasm.
Elvis Costello and The Sugarcanes
Star Stage, 3:05 p.m.
This was the act that most of Sunday’s unending crowd found to be a “must-see” and Mr. Costello and his troupe of Nashville session musicians did not disappoint. With the notable Jim Lauderdale on guitar and various dobro, fiddle, upright bass, mandolin and accordion players, the Sugarcanes blended beautifully in the late afternoon air and gave Costello’s engaging demeanor a good heft of twang.
It was a very exciting and tight set. There were a few songs played off of his latest album National Ransom, but for the most part he covered a range of hits that spanned his career and all with a decidedly country slant. “Mystery Range”, “Friend of the Devil”, “Brilliant Mistake”, and “Allison” were all received very well, but it was the cover of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” which really brought the crowd together. People of all ages were singing along to the classic, and despite its cynical lyrics, really made us feel the spirit of the weekend.
Star Stage, 5:20 p.m.
Last but not least, the most interesting act to ever play the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has to go to Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane, his orchestral covers of Italian pop songs from the 50’s and 60’s. Having seen Mondo Cane in Poland this July, I knew exactly what I was getting into but HSB marked the first US appearance of this unique and genre-pushing outfit. Though most of the crowd filtered out after Costello ended his set, this gave Patton fans and other curious music buffs to come up close to the stage and witness this rare event.
Patton’s band was a little different than it was during his European tour but Italians Leonardo di Anguilla on drums and composer Daniele Luppi helped reel in the authenticity. The string section was made up of the fresh-faced Magik Magik Orchestra, who seriously looked like they rolled in straight from high school, and the special surprise goes to the appearance of Ex-Mr.Bungle member Trey Spruance on guitar, who was hidden by the string section for most of the night.
But enough about the technicalities – let’s get onto the music. I think Patton said it best by announcing they were going to “put the ass back in bluegrass” and did they fucking ever. The entire set with tight and rolling with a cacophony of classical music and rock riffs. Whether he was hitting all the soaring notes in the iconic and soulful “Ore D’Amore” or crooning to the joyous and retro-tinged “Deep Down”, Patton was making sure the auditory blend of styles was hitting you like a sledgehammer. Done live, the songs are a lot edgier than they are on the Mondo Cane album and Patton relished his chance to combine the various aspects of his schizophrenic musical persona – the suave serenader and the outrageous rock star. The most crowd-pleasing songs of the night were the two songs that work as a showcase for those two personalities “Urlo Negro” and “Storia D’Amore.” With those numbers, the crooner and the screamer blend with such rollicking enthusiasm that it became impossible for anyone to not “get” what Patton is trying to do with Mondo Cane: push the genre (whatever it may be) and have fun while doing it.
And fun is exactly what Patton was having on stage. He was smiling and laughing, both between songs and during songs, expressing the pure joy he has in his music. He was engaging with the crowd and supportive of his talented band. And you have to give props to them for taking on a show that’s a bit askew. The strings section especially handled the challenging set very well. There were times that you could see they were a bit unsure of how the crowd was going to handle the music, even laughing about it, but they soon found out that the audience wouldn’t have expected anything less from Patton. It was a lot of fun to watch Luppi conduct them too, having to get out of his seat and really throw himself into the motions of getting those strings to fly.
By the time the set was over, the sun had gone down and there were more than a few teary-eyed people milling around, soaking up the atmosphere of the magical performance they had just witnessed. Though Mondo Cane had an underground vibe at the festival and flew below most people’s radar, I hope the ones who were lucky enough to catch the show will help spread the word of how amazing it was. This stuff is too good for only one show.
Gallery by Karina Halle