THROUGH THE LENS: The Joy and Excitement of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2022
Charley Crockett - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2022 - Photo by Peter Dervin
As the calendar turns to October, the roots music festival season begins to wind down, so what better way to celebrate what the year 2022 has brought than to head west and visit the largest, most encompassing free festival there is: San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Conceived and subsidized by a local venture capitalist and banjo player, Warren Hellman, the festival began 2001. While various commercial interests frequently lobbied to sponsor the event, Hellman always turned them down. He also made provisions that upon his passing, in 2011, the festival would always concentrate on the music and remain free.
Once again we are fortunate to have Hardly Strictly Bluegrass veteran Peter Dervin cover it for No Depression. Peter’s dedication, perseverance, and camera work is second none. Here’s his report, and his photos are in the gallery that follows.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass by Peter Dervin
It’s not hard to describe the joy and excitement I was feeling upon my return to the Golden Gate Park to be part of the renewal of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Upon arrival, you could tell by the many smiles that happiness was in the air as folks were setting up their spots in the meadows, ready to embrace this three-day weekend. One of the many challenges of the fest is navigating between its stages and catching the sets of those you do not want to miss. Looking back, I seemed to be everywhere at once.
I began with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, one of Canada’s leading roots and rock bands since 1996, who, with their blending of so many branches of roots music, certainly set the tone for the weekend. They were a nice segue to the legendary Asleep at the Wheel, who, with Ray Benson at the helm, once again brought their unique western swing and boogie-woogie to the growing crowd for a really good time.
Following those male-dominated bands were three women musicians who are playing significant roles in the Highwomen Movement: S.G. Goodman and her band melted faces with a sonically impressive set, which was was one of the fest’s most talked about; the inspiring Joy Oladokun performed to an appreciative audience; and the real treat was Allison Russell, fresh from winning the Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. Performing with a group of formidable female artists, Russell’s emotional delivery demonstrated why she has garnered so many accolades.
Wrapping up the evening was the honky-tonk country music of Charley Crockett. His brand of country music harkens back to the sound of the ’60s, when there was a little bit of rockin’ twang in the ol’ dance halls.
Jake Blount, a new force in traditional music, is every bit as good as you have heard. Kelsey Waldon shared some wonderful storytelling songs, along with a heartfelt thank you for being part of John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. After those sets I’m glad I skipped over to see Ismay, who’s on the verge of breaking out. I then hopped over to hear the beautiful harmonies of Joseph, a trio from from Portland, Oregon.
As if all that were not enough, I just had to catch Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams; Bonny Light Horseman, featuring Anaïs Mitchell, Tony winner for her Broadway musical Hadestown; and Buddy Miller, who was joined by Emmylou Harris and Jim Lauderdale. Most notable was Miller and Harris’ heartbreaking rendition of “Love Hurts.”
There has been considerable national interest in the collective voices of the Black Opry Revue. Here we were mesmerized by three members of that rotating revue: Lizzie No, alternating between harp and guitar, played a nice set of pop folk tunes; Leon Timbo, whose physical and vocal presence absolutely brought you to church with a moving and emotional set; and O.N.E. the Duo, a mother-and-daughter vocal group who did a fun set of harmonic tunes that had everyone dancing.
Closing the day was Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) and Adrian Belew (King Crimson), whose set, titled “Remain in Light,” was an ambitious Talking Heads retrospective. From the opening pulse provided by bassist Julie Slick pounding out the rhythmic beat of “Psycho Killer,” the packed crowd got what they had been so eagerly waiting for. As the evening fog was rolling in, it was the next best thing to the Heads’ famous Stop Making Sense tour of nearly 40 years ago.
The final day was more traditional: Dry Branch Fire Squad did a lovely set of bluegrass; Alison Brown played a banjo jazz set of instrumentals that was way cool; and Amythyst Kiah, who has established herself as an artist on the rise, added two new members to her band, giving her music a boosted feel.
The most anticipated set of the day as the Fare Thee Well tribute celebrating the lives of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass family and friends. The Go to Hell Men Band, who had also played the day before, opened the set honoring Nancy Hellman Bechtle, sister of HSB founder Warren Hellman, who passed away last year. Her namesake band, Nancy & The Lambchops, did a wonderful set of honky-tonk tunes dressed in western attire. It was a family affair, and one of the most genuine and heartfelt moments of the festival.
Steve Earle’s set also had him also acting as master of ceremonies, including performing a song he had written for Bechtle. The special guests included Emmylou Harris, Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tré Burt, and Elvis Costello. The friends who were remembered included Nanci Griffith, Billy Joe Shaver, David Olney, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, and Justin Townes Earle. It was a beautiful performance from all involved.
Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore with the Guilty Ones closed the weekend. I’ve been listening to Dave Alvin since The Blasters hit the L.A. clubs in the early 1980s. During the pandemic, Alvin shared that he was having treatments for cancer, and he’s been laying low to stay healthy, limiting his touring to California. Having Alvin on stage with Gilmore was nothing short of spectacular.
In closing, it was so good to be back in Hellman Hollow for the return of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Hot dog, that sure was fun!
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.