If it is October, it’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass time at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Once again readers of this column will be able to experience, up close and personal, that autumnal gathering via the photos and words of Peter Dervin, with additional photos by Holly Horn.
This year marked my eighth straight Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and it was certainly one of the best. With over 90 bands, musicians, and artists converging on Golden Gate Park on a beautiful San Francisco weekend, nothing could have been better.
T Bone Burnett
The expectations for T Bone are usually high, especially with a performance on the Banjo Stage. He came out on stage and proceeded to torch up a fire smudge and informed the audience that he was going to present a new project called “The Invisible Light.” I don’t think the crowd was ready for what they were to hear. Burnett and band presented an ambient soundscape with a spoken word dub performance that at times were exhilarating and scary. This music at this festival was certainly outside the norm, but those of us who love Brian Eno and Bill Laswell, it was an amazing performance. Those expecting a rootsy set were disappointed and picked up the chairs in mid-performance. Frankly, it was a gutsy move to bring this body of work to the stage.
Buddy Miller’s Cavalcade of Stars
Last year I stayed around the Rooster Stage for the day as Buddy Miller presented his Cavalcade of Stars. This year had a mix of old and new country artists. Gurf Morlix kicked things off with a fun set of country tunes and colorful presence on stage. Bill Anderson, a country legend, has had a long career through different styles. His performance was simple and easygoing.
The one artist I was looking forward to the most was Lillie Mae. I had seen her earlier in the year at Bumbershoot and loved her music and performance. When we did some portrait shots in Seattle, I had asked her if she was coming here and she had informed me that Buddy Miller (who is her neighbor in Nashville) asked her to join the Cavalcade. It was truly a fun set.
Dan Penn, who has written so many hits in rock and soul music, doesn’t perform that often, so his performance was a special treat. You can always tell when someone is appreciated at HSB by the visitors catching the show on the side stage seating. Many of the other songwriters come to be inspired by a singer-songwriter whose music has meant so much to so many.
Miller closed out his Cavalcade by introducing us to The War and Treaty. This duo performed an amazing blues and soul set that moved the crowd into jubilation. All in all, the Buddy Miller Cavalcade of Stars was another great success with a variety of old and new country music.
Lampedusa with Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, and Lucinda Williams and special guest Bob Weir
This line up of all-stars was here to sing and bring awareness to the crisis facing the island of Lampedusa and raise awareness of the 65 million displaced people around the world because of war, conflicts, and disasters. They kicked of the set with a moving tribute to Tom Petty by performing “Refugee.” Each artist took turns at a song from their respective catalog. Bob Weir made a special appearance, joining Steve Earle to perform a heartfelt version of “I Know You Rider.”
Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands kicked off HSB with a traditional bluegrass country set filled with beautiful harmonies and some great playing.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones hit the Banjo Stage with a rockin’ set of originals and Bill Broonzy covers that had everyone showing Dave some serious love. Alvin is a regular at HSB, playing with his brother Phil or with The Knitters: he is one of the best.
The one performance that was not typical for Hardly Strictly was the one put in by recent Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Cheap Trick, and when they hit the stage they just rocked out. Hit after hit from the guys that took Live at Budokan to the top of the charts. I found myself singing to every song and felt like a teenager for an hour.
Another highlight was Hot Tuna Electric, who put in a rousing set of classic Tuna. It was one of the more animated performances by Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen I’ve seen while playing at HSB these many years. They’re showing the younger folks how it’s done.
I floated on over to the Banjo Stage, which is the main stage for the festival, to find Billy Bragg standing there, solo with his acoustic guitar in hand. Bragg is one of those unique musicians who evokes both passion and angst in his performance. Of note was his reworking of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” with revised political commentary –“The Times they Are a-Changin’ AGAIN.” It was really quite amazing.
I was able to catch a little bit of Gillian Welch with Dave Rawlings on the Banjo Stage. Welch has become one of the darlings of Hardly Strictly and had a huge audience.
Dan Auerbach, Lukas Nelson, and Some New Discoveries
The other artist I was looking forward to was Dan Auerbach. I wasn't sure what to expect from this member of The Black Keys and The Arcs. Auerbach came out on stage with a band that were probably some of the best country session players out of Nashville. These guys ripped into a country music set that was pretty darn cool. Auerbach once again proved that he can bring something new and fresh to HSB.
Earlier this year I was able to see and hear Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real perform at the Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival, so I knew what I was in for at HSB. They are making an impact with their brand of Americana country rock. The folks attending this set were there to party and sing in unison and ended up being one of the largest crowds of the weekend.
Knowing nothing about The Sam Chase & The Untraditional turned out to be a nice surprise. Pretty much straight rock that had everyone in the crowd on their feet and dancing.
Tracy Blackman was another unknown for me. A fellow photographer texted me to see if I could get some photos of her as he was running late to the festival. I was pleasantly surprised by her performance of acoustic blues. I ran into her later in the day and she was just so appreciative of playing HSB.
The Sons of the Soul Revivers had the Sunday morning crowd off their feet and jumping for joy. Simply put, it was really amazing, hallelujah!
In summary, the 2017 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was one of the best ever, and I certainly can’t wait to get back to Hellman Hollow in 2018.
Now, scroll through Peter and Holly’s photos. A feast for the eyes, up close and personal.