There is a man in San Francisco -- to whom capitalism has been very kind -- who can make his fantasy come to life. And sure enough it did (and does) and there isn't a person alive with better dreams than he. As a matter of fact, this year's fifth and free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was so damned stupendous that is was too much so. We are terrified of what could happen next year, because how can it possibly improve? It was so good by Sunday at 4 pm that we had to leave. We just couldn't grin any more.
Let's back up... Saturday was one of those rare WARM, calm, FOGGY days out in the avenues. Golden Gate Park was taking on a Chinese painting mystique with the glowing mist, somehow warm enough for t-shirts. Modern stars and bluegrass legends, one after the other and often cruelly overlapping, feasted us all day long and it was Doc Watson's set in particular that reached our hearts. He played betwixt the Del McCoury Band, delivering as always, and banjo uber-legend Earl Scruggs, who was an absolute delight despite a few feedback snags.
Meanwhile, we had a space set up at the Rooster Stage, where we made friends with the soundman who apparently has been Van Halen's knob tweaker for 2 decades. Kelly Joe Phelps sounded like warm, melting butter and it was our first time seeing him. Our clan had to split for a bit... half stayed at Rooster for Jimmy Dale Gilmore's soulful country and yours truly enjoyed The Knitters, John Doe's country rock outfit which was just fucking great!!
Made it back to Rooster to see Danny Barnes shred banjer in Robert Earl Keen's band, and cruised to Star Stage for Los Super Seven, which was probably the most astounding set of the weekend. This was a special (non-touring) show all unto itself, featuring the complete Calexico (!!) as the core with Joe Ely, Raul Malo, Ruben Ramos, Rick Trevino, and The West Side Horns. The sound spread in Lindley Meadow was sweet as can be. For lucky reasons this was practically an intimate show, especially compared to the next afternoon's enormous turnout for Dolly Parton on this stage.
After Los Super Seven, we raced up the hill to hear the end of Steve Earl's set, and headed off to the Inner Richmond for horrid pizza and excellent beer (our friends Andrew and Judy lent us their home). The cruelty of the situation then sank in, as we took stock of what we MISSED, including Hot Rize, Gillian Welch, Buddy Miller, and the lads from Mother Hips.
Sunday we showed up early, and there were already lines and mayhem at the Star Stage. The Waybacks (augmented with Darol Anger on fiddle) rocked the big lawn early, and the crowd was treated to gigantic red-tailed hawks battling overhead in the midst of a crescendoing jam! I am not kidding, and yes I am talking about fierce birds of prey. Then came the best version of "Cumberland Blues" ever... Darol Anger 's augmentation a wicked weapon. The other Dead cover of the day was Hotter Buttered Rum String Band playing "Sugaree", and it was so fucking bad I was embarrassed. Sorry, but avoid this band we will. We stuck around for Hazel Dickens, who was introduced by Hellman (the aforementioned man who dreamed this up and delivered) as the heart and soul of the festival. We don't know the details, but we'll take his word for it.
A big Sunday highlight was Tim O'Brien's band featuring [this site's favorite] Danny Barnes on banjo and electric guitar. This new band is just starting a lengthy tour and they'll only get better, and that's downright frightening. Tim O has obviously set out to put the best players imaginable in his band, giving the next act Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder a run for their money for HUGEST SOUNDING bluegrass band. During the Kentucky Thunder set we also dropped in on the songwriting circle a bit, catching Dave Alvin and Steve Earle sing a few.
By the time Ralph Stanley was starting, you could see how the magnitude of the crowd was increasing... people were streaming in for the Dolly show, not to mention Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris and you have a gigantic collision of demographics. And please allow me to say this... I have never seen so many beautiful lesbians in stylee cowboy hats in my life, and I can't wait to see them all again next year. It's a fine, fine look.
So has it gotten too good? Can this sustain? I can't wait to see what that fantasy man will come up with for HSBF#6 in '06. But if he's taking requests, I have tiny few: invite the Danny Barnes Collective and Corinne West to play. And put Calexico on the main stage!
This year's line-up for Hardly Strictly is the best yet. Many of our picks (we are in full family mode for this thing) are pretty darned obvious to those paying attention but for those needing a little guidance or are just curious, here goes:
SAT - It's pretty much a grab bag until 1:25 when Del McCoury plays the Banjo Stage, followed by Doc Watson, who is then followed by Earl Scruggs at 4:15... a trio of legends in a row that we can't miss!! But it gets tricky... Robert Earl Keen (w/ Danny Barnes on banjo) plays the Rooster Stage at 4:50, and Calexico plays a Los Super Seven set with Joe Ely, Ruben Ramos, et al beginninga at 5:15 on the Star Stage. Youch. And then it's Steve Earle back at the main stage. To see all of this, we have to miss Kelly Joe Phelps, Tim and Greg from Mother Hips, Hot Rize, Gillian Welch, Buddy Miller, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Brutal. But if all goes well we won't accidently hear Joan Baez.
SUN - We'll kick off Sunday morning at 11 for The Waybacks w/ Darol Anger at the main. Roam a bit, but back to the main stage for Tim O'Brien's 1:15 set featuring Mr. Danny Barnes in his band. He's followed by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, who the past 2 years has totally astounded us. Another legend -- Ralph Stanley -- follows at 4:05 and then Emmylou Harris at 5:45. The Rooster Stage has some serious attractions... Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, and Steve Earle do a songwriters circle at 2:45 and Roseanne Cash is at 4:20. We'll catch her for a while, but then head over to see Dolly Parton at the Star Stage... cannot miss. Then to end it, it's gotta be Peter Rowan and Tony Rice over at the Arrow Stage at 5:45. Then we'd have to miss Emmylou, which we hate to do. Brutal choices!
There are 5 stages this year, so plans can change if the sound systems get crowded, but the main stage is looking mighty this year. Seeya in the park.
While most of the U.S. is sweltering this August, the SF Bay Area is swathed in fog. Thus, we get the blues.
Mississippi Fred McDowell is the new oldie favorite... we've been listening to his 1959 recordings of wicked country blues. Check out his version of "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning".
Leadbelly is in the house this summer, and "Bottle Up and Go" is the go-to song.
For the folks in the toastier states this summer, we recommend John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell" album. In its entirety.
And finally, you don't need to know anything about him... what he looks like, how old (or young) he is... where he's been or who he's played with or his geneology... it will all be clear the second you hear Eric Bibb's delta blues. Go hear his podcast! And also look out for the song "Saucer 'n Cup".