THROUGH THE LENS: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2019 Offered Feasts for the Eyes and Ears
Tanya Tucker - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2019 - Photo by Peter Dervin
As festival season winds down we are most fortunate to have Peter Dervin once again covering San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Founded by private equity investor and banjoist Warren Hellman in 2001, this year the free festival reckoned with what has become the number-one concern for virtually all events: security. For the first time there were designated entry points (four) and limitations on what you could bring in. But once you got past the new entry procedures, you still got to see legends such as Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker, Bill Frisell, The Flatlanders, and Judy Collins as well as invigorating younger artists such as Margo Price, Yola, Nikki Lane, Black Joe Lewis, and Flor de Toloache, an all female Mariachi band.
From what I could gather, security went pretty well. What some folks found distressing was the heat: 84 degrees on the hottest day and sunny. Joan Osborne, for one, became light-headed at the end of her set. However, the heat did not seem to deter Peter, whose report and photos follow. You can see those sunny days in his photos; they have a bucolic feel to them. The heat is not as fondly remembered, but for those of us who sweltered at various other festivals this summer — such as AmericanaFest which topped out at a blazing 108 degrees — 84 would have been seemed like a spring morning. Here’s Peter’s enthusiastic report.
After a year off from my annual trip to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, I was wondering how the flow of the weekend was going to go this year. This year marked some major changes for the organizers of HSB primarily due to security and safety concerns.
It was the first time that the free-to-the-public event would be fenced around the perimeter of Hellman Hollow and the spacious Golden Gate Park. Just to give you an idea of how many have people showed up in the past, estimates from other media sources say that HSB attracts anywhere from 500,000 to 750,000 people over the three-day weekend. This year, they all had to arrive through just a few gates.
Once inside, one of the things that has always been hectic about Hardly Strictly is the pace of getting from one stage to another, and this year, for photographers, that really was put to the test. We had to get all our shots within the first three songs of each set, while in years past we were able to float in and out of the photo pit throughout a performance, which gave us the flexibility to catch someone mid-set or at the end. So choosing who to see was sort of based on being able to be in the photo pit at the start of their set.
My weekend began at the Banjo Stage with festival regular Dry Branch Fire Squad, with their down-to-earth bluegrass harmonies and finger pickin’. Then I ventured over to the Rooster Stage for a new-to-me artist, Chastity Brown, who sang an inspiring set of blues-tinged country soul. She certainly is someone to watch for.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears did not disappoint. Their brand of funky Southern blues was downright rockin’ and had the fans at the Banjo Stage out of their folding chairs and dancing to the fuzzed-out guitar rhythms. Back at the Rooster Stage, the atmospheric jazz stylings of Bill Frisell filled the air. With vocalist Petra Haden, cellist Hank Roberts, and second guitarist Luke Bergman, they performed new music from Frisell’s latest album Harmony, on which they all appear.
One of the many highlights for me every year are the performances from the offspring of the festivals founders, Warren and Chris Hellman. One such group is The Brothers Gibb, whose satirical presentations have become legendary in Hellman Hollow. This year they performed as the Cousins of the Brothers Gibb, suitably attired as a Kurt Cobain bluegrass quartet. As always, it was a wonderful and fun set from the B-G’s at the Bandwagon Stage.
Shooter Jennings had the Rooster Stage rocking as his band churned out some top-notch country rock that had everyone hootin’ and hollerin’. Jennings has also been working recently with Brandi Carlile to produce and cowrite new music for the one and only Tanya Tucker, who just so happened to be performing on the Banjo Stage.
Tucker came out and dazzled the crowd with a reminder of her status as a country music legend; her performance was one of the many highlights of the weekend. Strolling over to the Bandwagon Stage I caught a new artist who performs as Bedouine. Azniv Korkejian played solo acoustic guitar with a sublime vocal style similar to that of Joni Mitchell that filled the open space of Hellman Hollow.
My first day of HSB ended with the one and only St. Paul & The Broken Bones, whose rhythm and blues are something to behold, one part funky and one part pizzazz. Paul Janeway’s soaring vocals had fans singing and screaming along word for word. Now that’s the way to close a beautiful day in Golden Gate Park. Day One proved to be a success as the crowd size was manageable and everything seemed to go fairly well with the new safety and security rules.
Day Two began with an annual tradition, the performance of The Go To Hell Man Band featuring the children, grandchildren, and family friends of Warren and Chris Hellman. This group has evolved over the years as these musicians have honed their skills and songwriting talents. You can feel the happiness and joy shared by everyone involved. (For those who don’t know, the Hellman Foundation allocates the financial resources that allow Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to be a free event for the City of San Francisco.)
The Buddy Miller Cavalcade of Stars featured up-and-coming artists along with country legends. The first musician was Travis Meadows along with his son on lap steel. Meadows’ storytelling touched deep, certainly, marking him as someone to keep an eye on.
Adia Victoria hit the Porch Stage with a power and force that continues to impress. I first heard her at the Treefort Music Fest in 2015. Since then she has put out two albums and has toured the world, and I’ve been able to watch her evolve as an artist. She has her own sound, a mix of blues and gutsy storytelling.
The Banjo Stage had The Flatlanders, featuring Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock, and they did not disappoint. Kicking off their set with the classic “Dallas” had everyone dancing and singing. I then strolled over to the Bandwagon Stage to hear ISMAY’s Songs and Stories from Sonoma Mountain — yet another talented musician from the Hellman Clan, blending song and storytelling into a mystical event.
Then I was off again as I was really looking forward to hearing Yola back at the Cavalcade of Stars. Her deep and sultry voice echoed throughout the meadow and completely mesmerized the entire audience. While her set was out of this world, I needed to hustle over to the Banjo Stage to catch another amazing musician, Margo Price, whose star is rising in the Americana and country universe. Price hit the stage with exuberance and confidence and proceeded to put on a fantastic set.
My Day Two wrapped up with a great set by The New Pornographers on the Swan Stage. Their set was a mix of rock and pop sensibilities that had their fans dancing with joy. My day overall ended with me being backstage as Robert Plant hit the stage. Frankly, the crowd for his performance was overwhelming. From my view, sitting on a park bench, I watched the shadow of Plant movin’ and groovin’ as he sang his Led Zeppelin classics and songs from his solo catalog with his Sensational Space Shifters. The biggest surprise was the addition of Lillie Mae with some excellent bluegrass fiddle playin’.
First up on Sunday was another musician that is making a name for herself, Nikki Lane, who has an irresistible charm in her music and style. Decked out in a cowhide jacket and skirt, she entertained the gathering crowd with her honky-tonk country tunes.
Sauntering over to the Swan Stage I caught Bay Area favorites Moonalice, who, in dedicating their set to lyricist Robert Hunter and guitarist Neal Casal, kicked off with the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.” Deadheads were there in unison as they danced to the music.
One band that I was looking forward to was Liz Cooper and the Stampede, making their Banjo Stage debut. Many of the regulars among the audience at that stage are accustomed to bluegrass and folk artists, but they really didn’t know what to expect from Cooper as she plugged into her amp. Their set was in-your-face psychedelic meltdown rock ’n’ roll, and the faithful loved it.
The Bandwagon Stage is one of the unique stages in the spacious Hellman Hollow area in the Park and Nancy and the Lambchops held court in the afternoon sun. Nancy Hellman Bechtle, sister of Warren Hellman, formed her own band in honor of her brother and carries on the joyfulness of the HSB experience. Decked out in Nudie-style western wear, she and the band mixed originals with country classics.
Legendary folk singer Judy Collins brought complete silence to the Banjo Stage as thousands listened intently as she opened her set with Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning.” It was beautiful. Collins also sang a riveting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” that captivated the entire meadow.
Over at the Bandwagon Stage, Flor de Toloache, New York’s only female Mariachi band and Latin Grammy award winners, filled the meadow to capacity with their infectious traditional Mexican music. They had everyone dancing in the sunshine.
Mike Nesmith & the First National Band took to the Rooster Stage to revisit Nesmith’s album catalog from his post-Monkees career. The First National Band put out three albums in the 1970s with their country rock sound as Nesmith tried to break away from his Monkee persona.
During the same time period as Nesmith, a young female voice would emerge from the Southern California country scene with Gram Parsons: Emmylou Harris. Harris once again took center stage to close out another Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. She has performed at this festival since its early beginnings and her music brings all the elements of the HSB spirit together.
In summary, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass remains of the country’s preeminent festivals. Thanks again to the Hellman Foundation and the City of San Francisco for making it all happen and making the transition into the new reality of modern security a seamless one.
Mark your calendar for next year, the festival’s 20th anniversary: Oct. 2-4, 2020.
Note that that while the following photos are in a gallery format, they may be enlarged and viewed as a slideshow by clicking on any single one.