This past weekend marked the ninth annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, with about 80 roots-oriented acts appearing on six different stages over the course of three days. The festival is notable for its size (at an estimated 750,000 attendees this year, it dwarfs most other festivals), the caliber of talent it attracts, and its price tag: free to all who show up, thanks to the generosity of one man who foots the bill, billionaire investment banker and banjo-picking roots music enthusiast Warren Hellman.
With multiple acts appearing at any one time, it’d be insane to attempt anything like comprehensive coverage of the weekend. So this is just about the stuff I saw (chose to see), which means it’s necessarily limited by my tastes. Sorry to fans of the acts I didn’t catch; if there were five more of me, I’d have been there. The days were roughly split into two groups: Saturday was mostly Texas (gotta see those guys on their rare trips out this way) and Sunday was mostly bluegrass (couldn’t pass up an amazing line-up of legends).
Here are a few notes, followed by a chronological photo tour of my HSB 2009.
Toughest Decision – Noon on Saturday
Hayes Carll, Buddy Miller, and Guy Clark playing on different stages simultaneously. Guess who I saw?
Best Duo Performance – Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Clark, as Carll and Miller tour out this way more regularly. His subdued show with musical partner Verlon Thompson didn’t disappoint. While Clark was billed as the performer, Thompson was every bit an equal partner, winning applause with his vocal contributions and smooth acoustic guitar solos. Recent compositions like “Somedays the Song Writes You,” “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” and “Wrong Side of the Track” blended seamlessly with old favorites like “L.A. Freeway” and “Homegrown Tomatoes.” I was hoping for some “Randall Knife,” but they closed with “The Guitar,” eliciting gasps with the final line.
Best Line-Up on One Stage – Banjo Stage on Sunday
Darrell Scott Band, Hazel Dickens, Doc Watson & David Holt, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Del McCoury Band, Emmylou Harris. Like an immersion course in bluegrass history.
Best Bluegrass Supergroup – Earl Scruggs’ band
Scruggs brought along sons Randy and Gary, as well as dobro virtuoso Rob Ickes, velvet-voiced Jon Randall, Keith Sewell on electric guitar, and Hoot Hester on fiddle. Predictably, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and the Beverly Hillbillies theme (sung by Randall) got the biggest responses. Festival sponsor Warren Hellman appeared onstage to pick some banjo with Scruggs. (Hellman joined Steve Martin onstage the previous day.)
Best Bluegrass Show – Del McCoury Band
Del and the boys smiled their way through an impeccable set of familiar favorites, matching their masterful picking and singing with a real flair for showmanship as they fielded audience requests. The way they weave around that mic without butting heads or missing a step makes it clear: bands don’t come any tighter.
Best Bone-Chilling Moment – Ralph Stanley singing “O Death”
Stanley is still in remarkably good voice, and he owns this song.
Best Awe-Inspiring Display of Versatility – Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Stuart and his snazzily-dressed Superlatives gave an accomplished, wide-ranging set that bound disparate strands of country rock, honky tonk, bluegrass, gospel harmony, instrumental music, and country humor into a satisfying whole experience that seemed structured with all the care of a fine concept album. No other act I saw did as many things as successfully as Stuart and his band. Spellbinding. (I was going to cut out early to catch the beginning of Robert Earl Keen, but I just couldn’t do it. Didn’t count on them being so good!)
Best Guest Appearance – Todd Snider on “Corpus Christi Bay”
Robert Earl Keen pulled Snider from backstage to join him on this old Keen favorite, which Snider sang in live shows for years before finally committing to record on The Excitement Plan.
Best Honky Tonk Party – Billy Joe Shaver
Shaver delivered a spirited, electrifying performance, highlighted by his natural charm and occasionally raunchy sense of humor. There were smiles all around as he romped his way through his imposing songbook, including “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “You Asked Me To,” “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” “Live Forever,” and “When Fallen Angels Fly.” Great, great performance. In a weekend that leaned more ‘alt’ than anything else, Shaver’s set was a beautiful hour of true blue honky tonk.
Best Rock Show – Reckless Kelly
Reckless Kelly chugged its way through a set that kept the crowd dancing, though a few too many rocking guitar solos killed some of its momentum. At one point, they offered to do a bluegrass song, then launched into a rocking version of “Wild Western Windblown Band”… as Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers picked some honest-to-goodness bluegrass one stage over. Not bluegrass, boys, but that’s some fine rock.
Best Thing Missed By Late Arrivals – Darrell Scott Band
Darrell Scott got the 11am opening slot on the festival’s biggest stage, and put on a hell of a show for those who arrived early to stake out some lawn space for the day ahead. Beginning with “Family Tree” and ending with “Long Time Gone,” he kept it mostly uptempo, which perhaps explains the regrettable absence of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” His band included Tim O’Brien, whose own set the previous day also had people raving.
Liveliest Stage Show – Old Crow Medicine Show
Those who chose Old Crow Medicine Show as their festival-ending Sunday night performance (Emmylou Harris was playing two stages over) sent the weekend out with a bang, as the OCMS boys (sans their usual banjo player) jumped around the stage like men possessed. The rowdy crowd’s excitement peaked with the one-two punch of “Wagon Wheel” and “Tell It to Me” near the end. Incidentally, if you want to understand all that isn’t bluegrass about Old Crow Medicine Show, see them right after Dickens, Scruggs, Stanley, and McCoury. It’s not difficult to see why their infectious brand of old-timey party music raises the ire of bluegrass purists.
Best New Material – Elizabeth Cook
Tucked away on the festival’s outermost and smallest stage, Cook took the opportunity to try out new material for her next studio album, which she’ll begin working with Don Was on in the next couple weeks. Her tunes and easy stage manner (also, her clogging and adorable accent) won over the mostly unfamiliar crowd; when the show ended, it seemed like about half the audience swarmed the merchandise table to pick up a CD. The biggest response was to “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman.” Can’t wait for the new record.
Now, a photo tour of my HSB 2009. Click images to enlarge.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 3
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 4