Hardly Strictly

I just can't do it, and perhaps never again. I attended the first 8 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festivals in Golden Gate Park and have many times sung the praise of Warren Hellman and his glorious event. But we barely survived #7, and we peaked at #8 with access-passes (thank you BAD LIVERS!!)

They are predicting 750,000 attendees this year, and I don't think it's an underestimate. It's simply too much humanity for us to deal with, so this will be the 3rd year I'll miss it.

Just for shits and giggles, I'm going to create an imaginary itinerary here in case I was kuh-razy enough to go. And I'm going to be realistic. Gone are the days when you can navigate between stages to cherry pick your shows like a smorgasbord. Unless you are 6 1/2 feet tall and don't mind bumming out other people, your best bet is to pick a spot and stick with it.

Huge weekend in Golden Gate Park!! Read about our complete adventure after the jump...

The phrase "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" must have been inspired by the 90's Austin, Texas band Bad Livers. They broke up in 2000 just before Warren Hellman launched his awesome free festival in 2001.

Bad Livers' music always seemed to show up at HSBF in one way or another. The sound man for Emmylou Harris played their records just before her set the first 3 years (and for all I know, he plays them at all of her gigs.) Then Danny Barnes began showing up in person, playing w/ Tim O'Brien on the main stage and Robert Earl Keen's now-traditional slot at the Rooster Stage. His electric band (The Collective) played the Porch Stage in 2006.

Now... somehow... the Bad Livers are getting together for a special reunion show (shows?) at Hardly Strictly VIII. Like I was saying, these guys were the definitive "hardly, strictly bluegrass" band that was as influenced by Motorhead and the Bad Brains as they were by Earl Skruggs and Bill Monroe.

Bad Livers had a way of making a banjo, fiddle, and bass sound as HEAVY as Metallica or Cream. It's really a treat to see Barnes and Mark Rubin get together again. They ranked at the very top of the banter scale with their discussions about fishing and food. We don't know yet if Ralph White will round out the trio, or if it will be Bob Grant, or somebody else. You just might find out here first.

Our favorite weekend of the year is almost upon us.... the seventh Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.This year, thankfully, doesn't have any crossover superstars that make the scene entirely too crazy (such as Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton) but we still have to make some utterly cruel choices, especially late on Saturday. We get some good rockin' on Sunday morning and Friday's evening program is great too, although we'll miss it! Continue on for a full rundown....

Friday begins with the children's program in the morning. If your kids aren't in school, this is worth attending. Wish our schools were going. This afternoon, T-Bone Burnett and Friends play at 4:15. I don't know who the friends are this year, but last year Marc Ribot was playing guitar and it was our favorite gig of the weekend (after Danny Barnes Collective, or course!) Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame follows at 5:45. We've always liked Tweedy... we know for a fact that he's one of the most AUTHENTIC "rock" stars out there, as we knew him in the early Uncle Tupelo days. As a mater of fact, my wife and I's first date was sort of a double date w/ Tweedy and then girlfriend Heather, who I worked with at Cicero's in St. Louis. Lord knows there's some songs about her! Well, everything worked out for all of us, I suppose. I have vivid memories of Tweedy hanging out at Cicero's, smoking his Camels and drinking Rolling Rock. He was always friendly but reserved. Anyway, my opinion is he always deserved his fame and his music just keeps getting better.

I'm going to miss Friday's program because I'm taking Danny Barnes down to Saratoga where he warms up for country legend Charlie Louvin. We might pop over the hill to join up with Robert Earl Keen's band in Santa Cruz because Barnes is also their banjo player. He's been out on the road with them the past few weeks opening for Bob Dylan and Dave Matthews Band. Turns out that Dave Matthews is, like us, a HUGE Danny Barnes fan and invited him to sit in the past coupla nights in Texas. Way to go Barnes!!

Saturday begins simple enough. The Knitters (cowboy version of punk legends X w/ Dave Alvin on guitar) kick it off at the Star Stage. For those who don't know, the Star Stage is a great place to set up w/ the family because it has a lllllllong meadow. The Rooster Stage is more challenging w/ the kiddies, but we'll have to spend some time there as Guy Clark plays at 12:40 followed by the one and only Nick Lowe! We'll then head over to the Arrow Stage (which can sometimes get blasted out by the Main/Banjo stage) but we'll want to see a rare appearance of The Flatlanders at 2:20 followed by Michelle Shocked at 3:45. But the trick here is to also witness Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder w/ special guest Bruce Hornsby at 3:20 at the Banjo Stage. Skaggs and KT are always worth seeing... it's amazing how an acoustic band can project such a Wall of Sound.

While Skaggs and Company are followed by major draw Gillian Welch, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones play the Star Stage at 4:10. If you've never seen them, I strongly recommend dropping in. Hell... you could spend all day at the Star Stage. We just might. Because after Bela is Los Lobos, one of the consistently best live bands in the history of the planet. And here is where it gets cruel, because the afore-mentioned T-Bone Burnett and Friends plays the Arrow Stage at 5:20 and Robert Earl Keen (w/ Barnes on banjo!!) plays the Rooster Stage at 5:45. And.... Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes play the Banjo Stage at 6. Got that??? It doesn't get any tougher than this.

Sunday is more clear cut. We must arrive early to see our beloved Mother Hips at 11 am at the Arrow Stage. The Hips are California Rock incarnate. After they finish, we'll dash over to the Star Stage for The Sadies, whom we haven't seen since an adventurous night in Tucson several years ago. This is countrified rock THRASHED TO THE KILT. If you still feel like "hardly bluegrass", stick around for the Heartless Bastards, one of the news bands on the Fat Possum label (modern dirty blues.) If you want to see a true legend instead, Charlie Louvin plays the Rooster Stage at the same time (12:55). Charlie is in his 80's and still sounds magnificent.

The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience plays the Banjo Stage at 1:45, followed there by banjo legend Earl Skruggs at 2:55. You can't go wrong spending the afternoon here at the Banjo stage, as Skruggs is followed by our favorite flatpicker (and Henry's favorite) Doc Watson. But the Rooster Stage is competitive too, with Jorma Kaukonen (of Hot Tuna and the original Jefferson Airplane) at 3:15 and Dave Alvin & the Guilty Men at 4:30, who will play hard-driving blues rock.

Alvin could be this year's MVP around the festival, with his own gig and The Knitters. He could very well show up w/ Los Lobos and/or T-Bone Burnett. Who knows? Barnes was last year's MVP, as he had his own Collective gig, plus REK and Tim O'Brien. Make sure you see Dave Alvin at least once.

As is tradition, Emmylou Harris closes the Banjo Stage at 5:45 on Sunday, but we'll be enjoying the best pure bluegrass band in the world over at the Star Stage... the Del McCoury Band.

I don't know how well we'll stay on target here. We might just set up base at the Star Stage and ramble from there. Glad the stroller days are over, that's for sure, and I always welcome some foggy weather to stunt the crowd a little bit. We've never missed a day of this festival since inception and hopefully never will.... it's the most amazing gift for Bay Area music fans imaginable. Hope to see ya there!

Hardly Strictly was amazing as usual. On the first day, our favorites were Danny Barnes Collective and the electric set from T-Bone Burnett. Elvis Costello joined T-Bone for 2 rock and roll songs.

Here's a 45-second sampling of the Danny Barnes Collective playing "Death Trip" at Hardly Strictly this year.

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.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival rolls for its 5th year in San Francisco this October 1 and 2, 2005. I think this year's lineup is the best so far, and that is saying a lot, to put it extra mildly.

Imagine if you can... Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Dolly Parton, Ralph Flippin' Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Hot Rize, Tim O'Brien w/ Danny Barnes in his band, Robert Earl Keen, Peter Rowan, Gillian Welch, Doc Flippin' Watson, Dave Alvin, Joan Baez, and the list goes on and on...

All of this for flippin' free over two days at Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow. Book your hotels or whatever,,, and remember the Bay Bridge will be suffering ramp demolition this particular weekend.

* Sorry about all the extra "flippin'", but this is the coolest event in the world.