Published: Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Stephen Chernin / AP
Emmylou Harris is part of an eclectic Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival lineup that also includes Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens and Doc Watson, Billy Bragg, Boz Scaggs and others.
With its ninth annual celebration of free music in Golden Gate Park, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival embodies the spirit of San Francisco.
The lineup is eclectic, providing a platform for such non-mainstream artists as bluegrass elders Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens and Doc Watson, and crossover artists like Emmylou Harris, Billy Bragg and Boz Scaggs.
The magnificent setting of the park, with stages cradled in leafy groves and on sprawling fields, is another of the show's stars.
No tickets are required; the festival is a generous gift from San Francisco financier Warren Hellman. What a contrast to the $225 price tag to spend the weekend at last month's Outside Lands festival. And the mellifluous sounds of Hardly Strictly are ideally suited to the park's natural ambiance.
Hellman, 75, a managing director at the San Francisco private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, is a bluegrass aficionado and banjo player. His band, the Wronglers, plays on one of the smaller stages, getting rousing cheers from music lovers who appreciate Hellman's generosity.
With the economy in tatters, Hellman says the festival faces a conundrum. "Should we lower our prices?" he joked. "Should we pay people to come?"
Hellman says the festival is on fine financial footing for at least the next decade, and he's set up an endowment to ensure it goes on at least 10 or 15 years "after I croak."
He's been approached by prospective buyers who wanted to charge people for attending, but is unambiguous that the festival isn't for sale. Hellman evokes the old saying that money is like manure: if you pile it all in one place it stinks, but if you spread it around, you can make a thousand flowers grow.
The festival began modestly as a one-day show in 2001 called Strictly Bluegrass. "We booked Hazel (Dickens) and thought 13 people would come," said festival co-producer Dawn Holliday. "So we thought we better hire Emmylou."
As the roster diversified - this year's performers include Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, The Chieftains, Mavis Staples and Gillian Welch - the name evolved.
The only problem with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is there's so much talent - 81 bands on six stages over the course of the three-day festival - that you just can't see it all.
The best strategy is to pick a few of your favorites and select a stage where you can spread your picnic blanket. From there, make occasional forays to check out other bands.
The ever-growing popularity of the festival (about 100,000 fans per day on Saturday and Sunday last year, according to police estimates) means that you'll find yourself in human traffic jams if you try to move too often.
The festival is beloved by the musicians. "It's my favorite place to play," said Robert Earl Keen, an alt-country troubadour who showcases songs from his new album, "The Rose Hotel," at sundown on Saturday.
"There are no sponsorships, no signage; it's like going to heaven," Keen said. "I look forward to it all year long." He appreciates that bands get to play full sets: "You're not shoved up on the stage and pushed off as quick as possible."
Keen praised Hellman for exposing so many people to Americana, bluegrass and folk and for bestowing soul-salving music at a time when many can't afford to attend concerts: "What greater gift could someone give than this gift of three days of free music."
Another draw is that big names and no-names play together, creating alchemical jams and wild crescendos.
This year local favorite Boz Scaggs will play a tribute to the late bluesman Jimmy Reed, backed by the Blue Velvet Band - a hand-picked lineup Scaggs put together for Hardly Strictly, including harmonica player James Cotton, blues keyboardist Austin de Lone, Brit rocker Nick Lowe, and guitarists Buddy Miller and Jimmie Vaughan.
Before the festival, on Thursday Oct. 1 and Oct. 2, Boz and the Blue Velvets will play two benefits at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. The shows will raise funds for residential treatment for those with Prader-Willi Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that de Lone's son suffers from.
Typically the festival invites performers back every other year at most, but it makes exceptions for Scruggs and Watson, both in their mid-80s, for Keen and Dickens, and for Emmylou Harris, who traditionally closes the three-day show Sunday at sunset.
"This is amazing," the silver-haired, silken-voiced Harris said, surveying the park and cheering throng at the end of last year's concert. "This is like the eighth wonder of the world."
Michael Shapiro is an author, travel writer, and entertainment correspondent for The Press Democrat. He can be reached at [email protected]
Tips from the woman who booked the acts
With so many great bands, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is a music lover's paradise, but it can be challenging to decide whom to see. For insider advice, we asked Dawn Holliday, the co-producer and talent booker for the festival, for some tips.
Naturally, Holliday, co-owner of Slim's and the Great American Music Hall, likes all the bands or she wouldn't have booked them, but still offered these highlights. For stage locations, check the festival program or see www.strictlybluegrass.com:
1. Boz Scaggs - tribute to the late blues guitarist Jimmy Reed: Scaggs assembled an all-star band (see main story) for the festival, Holliday said. "He's spent a lot of time in Texas and wanted to play with Jimmie Vaughan," the guitarist and brother of Stevie Ray. Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
2. Steve Martin - yes, that Steve Martin - with the Steep Canyon Rangers. The actor and comedian takes his banjo playing seriously with this Asheville-based bluegrass band. In a typical festival conundrum, Martin plays almost the same time as Boz Scaggs. "There's a shortcut, a path through the woods between the two stages so you can catch them both," Holliday said. Saturday, 2:40 p.m.
3. The Chieftains, founded in 1962, are Ireland's leading folk band. "There are many special reasons to see this band," Holliday said. Asked if there might be a special guest, she didn't say no. Sunday, 1:15 p.m.
4. Lyle Lovett and His Large Band are meant to be seen live, Holliday said, and there's nothing like kicking off the weekend by hearing him in a beautiful setting; Friday, 5:45 p.m.
5. John Prine is about as gifted vocally as Bob Dylan, but his poignant folk ballads are an ideal fit for the festival. Prine appears Friday at 4:15 p.m., a compelling reason to leave work early.
6. Mavis Staples, the legendary Chicago gospel and R&B singer, will turn the park into a revival meeting with her uplifting vocals. Holliday said that with the cancellation of San Francisco's blues festival, she wanted to showcase such artists as Staples (appearing Sunday, 4 p.m.) and New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint (Sunday, 2:05 p.m.).
7. One of last year's best-received acts, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, is back for an encore. Alvin, a founding member of the Blasters, will be joined by Americana all-stars Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, Christy McWilson and others, but it's at the same time as performance by Scaggs and Martin. Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
8. Just 20 years old, Jessica Lea Mayfield blends bluegrass traditions with Seattle sonic sensibilities. She sounds a bit like Gillian Welch, her songs evoking longing and muted desire. Sunday, 2:15 p.m.
9. "Without Hazel Dickens, this festival wouldn't exist," Holliday said. "She hits me emotionally." The 74-year-old coal miner's daughter and bluegrass singer from West Virginia was on the bill of the inaugural festival in 2001. Sunday, noon.
10. Tom Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine frontman, at a bluegrass festival? Yes, indeed; there's plenty of room under Hardly Strictly's big tent. Morello appears as his folk alter ego, The Nightwatchman, Friday at 3 p.m. and joins a songwriters circle with Dar Williams, Steve Earle and Alison Moorer on Saturday at 3:45 p.m. "He's a crazily insightful songwriter," Holliday said. "People will be blown away."
11. Amadou and Mariam, a duo from Mali who met at a school for the blind, play a sundown set on Sunday. They are known for their rhythmic, uplifting music, Holliday said. "The whole field will be dancing and booty-shaking."