Review: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival


Kurt Vile performing/photo by Courtney Garcia

For no apparent reason other than good karma, every year around this time San Francisco hosts a free bluegrass and rock music festival in Golden Gate Park all weekend long. Free! The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Fest this year featured a vast array of high caliber talent, including Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Patty Griffin, Bright Eyes, and M. Ward. The sun was buoyant, the air crisp and warm, and the smell of grilled barbeque and Mexican food was as prevalent as the burning of Parliament Lights. For all of the above reasons, thousands flocked to sunbath and daze, as folk music took over the air of the Bay city’s treasured fields.

Friday had many highlights, among them the unassuming and quaint Kurt Vile and his band, The Violators. The act played a 45-minute set in the early afternoon, a seemingly paradox blend of old-fashioned vocals and modern musical arrangements. Like his records, Vile, at his core, is rudimentary folk rock, yet he uses subtle touches to give his music a perfectly 21st century feel. He performed with an acoustic guitar for the set’s entirety, while his bandmates spun the sound more cinematically with electric guitars and timpani drums. Vile evokes the minimalist flair of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, his long, tattered hair blowing in the breeze as he mumbled prophecies into his microphone. His set included tracks, “Ghost Town,” “Jesus Fever,” and “Freak Town,” and concluded with an acoustic, solo performance of “Peeping Tomboy.”

The most prominent and crowded act of the day was, not surprisingly, Robert Plant, who played with his current group, The Band of Joy, also performing a few Zeppelin hits – “Thank You,” “Misty Mountain Hop, and “Ramble On” – much to the delight of the audience.

Saturday brought the weekend buzz and the crowds. Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson performed for nearly an hour and a half, enjoying the day practically as much as their fans. “I dedicate this song to the marijuana capitol of the world,” screamed Haggard with delight, as the audience cheered in agreement. “I think when a man is 70 years old, he should be able to smoke whatever he wants.”

Everyone lit a joint in solidarity.

Broken Social Scene opened their hour-long act with “7/4 (Shoreline).” The Canadian rockers, styled in relaxed indie-rocker garb and sunglasses, were invigorating and somewhat nihilistic in their musical implications, singing of fallen beliefs, distorted values and love unraveled throughout their narratives. The band’s strength goes beyond the quality of their lyrics however; as a live act, they proved they could rock the stage, entertaining fans with the guitars, drums, keys, trombone and saxophone among their many tools. Lead singer, Kevin Drew, congratulated his parents, in attendance, on their 44th anniversary, beckoning for answers on their secrets of love.

“We don’t know how to stick together anymore,” he lamented,” then dedicating the next song, “Sweetest Kill,” to divorcees in the crowd.

Closing Saturday, Irma Thomas, “Queen of New Orleans Soul,” stole the show. As is commonly observed, “when you’ve got, you’ve got it,” and Thomas, along with her brass band, has had it for decades. The crowd danced, cheered, laughed, and, when directed, swung their handkerchiefs through the air with the beat.

“If you were in New Orleans, you’d be using those to wipe the sweat off your face afterwards,” she joked. “Cause we don’t perspire, we sweat.”

Sunday was the most low-key, closing the festival with both legends and newcomers. The surprise act to catch was Fitz & the Tantrums, an up and coming indie act out of Los Angeles. The group was a high-impact, feisty blend of neo-soul and pop, with a throwback to swing bands of the ‘50s. It’s always exciting to see a band in love with their music, who dances hard, sings at the top of their lungs, and relishes the fresh fervor around them. This is that band. The group kept the crowd moving, covering some popular songs like “Steady As She Goes,” and “Sweet Dreams” and introducing the locals to the dynamism of their own bebop-style work. Concluding their set, the rockers directed the audience to drop it low and raise it up, as they performed their most well-known and very catchy track, “Moneygrabber.”

It was another great weekend in San Francisco, offering further testament to the truth that music flows through its veins.