written by John Marcher / A Beast In A Jungle
The 10th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival rolled into Golden Gate Park this past weekend and though the weather hardly cooperated, it was a glorious weekend of free music for hundreds of thousands of people. With dozens of bands appearing over eight hours on six stages each day, no one experienced the event in the same way- there were simply too many different things going on and this year there was truly something for everyone. I came away from it thinking hundreds of thousands of people has a wonderful time even though it was a very large, diverse, but always calm crowd. People came from far and wide to hear a line-up that was amazingly wide and deep with serious talents from many genres of music. I completely lucked out this year and was able to see it from the “Friends and family” sections of the various stages which made the entire event a relaxing joy, courtesy of Penelope. A big thanks to Warren Hellman for putting it on and to the good folks at Slim’s who organized and booked such a great event. Best of all, I found out Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is going to keep going through at least 2025- there’s your inside scoop, folks.
For Day 1 I took off work early and even though Friday afternoon featured only three of the six stages and started at 2:00 PM, we were stunned by how many people were already there- the crowd wasn’t as large as it would be on Saturday and Sunday, but a lot of people obviously blew off work that afternoon to enjoy the show.
By the time we packed a picnic and made it to Golden Gate Park we were just in time to catch Blue Highway, a straightforward contemporary bluegrass band, who’ve played the festival many times and record for Rounder Records. Tim Stafford on guitar, Jason Burleson on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, bassist Wayne Taylor and fiddler/vocalist Shawn Lane set the weekend off right with a set that dazzled with easy virtuosity and sophisticated playing. They’ll be appearing in Northern California four times in November- check out their website for details. I would definitely go hear this band again.
Next up came one of the three must-see acts for me- Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Like a lot of people, I’d never heard of Stanley until “O Brother Where Art Thou?” came out. He’s held my interest ever since and next to Johnny Cash, there’s Ralph Stanley and that’s pretty much it if you want to listen to a singer who sounds like they’ve been to hell and back and lived to sing about it. Both singers also share the unique distinction of becoming more interesting to listen to in their later years- at least to my ears.
Stanley came out and and delivered a solid set without having to resort to “A Man of Constant Sorrow,” which speaks volumes not only about the depth of his songbook but also to his refusal to rest on his laurels. Well into his 80’s, he’s intent on delivering a real performance and on this he delivered handsomely- giving the receptive crowd an hour long set that dug deep into the darker side of bluegrass and gospel. He’s hosting his own three-day bluegrass festival in Virginia in the spring of 2011. It may well be worth making your plans now for attending it.
Stanley’s a tough act to follow and it could be imagined that a “supergroup” headed by Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald would be up to the challenge. I usually blanch at the idea of these ad-hoc groups, but I was rooting for this one to succeed because why not? It’s not like they’re The Eagles, who just tour the country to empty the pockets of baby-boomer suckers in the most cynical way imaginable.
Still, it became evident early on The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue was nothing special, certainly not any better than most bands you could hear at the Saloon in North Beach on any given night. The song selection seemed to be based on the leaders’ favorite songs from their youth, which were given a big-band, but ain’t we funky, we’re rich rock stars who can still get down in a blue-eyed soul kind of way. No doubt these guys can play and sing, but whatever real gifts they brought to this material were mired in a sound mix that left any nuance buried beneath a loud, shiny surface. They sounded like a big bar band, nothing better, nothing worse, but certainly not worth sticking around for an entire set and then having to deal with traffic afterwards so we did what any rational person would do and left to grab some dinner and make the 8:00 curtain for the opera. And we did.