Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Strictly Brilliance

Valerie June singing Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon'. Photo by Brian Wise.

By Brian Wise.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Sunday October 1, 2023.

The fact that I made it to just one day of this extraordinary festival meant that I miss out on seeing Rickie Lee Jones, Christine ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, Dawes, Peter Rowan, Margo Cilker, Lucero, Bettye Lavette, Irma Thomas, Buddy Miller & Friends, Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, The Third Mind plus an Aussie contingent of The Teskey Brothers and The Church.

That still left me with one of the best days of music I have had this year. I had already decided that I needed to minimise the distance I travelled and had eliminated the main Banjo Stage from plans, thus missing Rufus Wainwright and Emmylou Harris (I had seen them in Nashville a few weeks earlier). Later in the day I did get to say hi to Rufus as he hurtled past me on a golf cart heading for Banjo but I am not sure his whiplash turn of head in surprise counts as a greeting.

Golden gate Park is huge and the festival takes up just a small part of it in Hellman Hollow (named after its founder) and Lindley and Marx meadows yet it can still require plenty of walking between the six main stages, which now seems a lot more difficult than it did when I first came here at least 15 years ago after reading Sylvie Simmons review in Mojo. Also, if you don’t like crowds this is not for you. They say there are up to 200,000 people a day over the weekend. I am not certain but I’d say at least 100,00o across the 6 main stages. But the vibe is really good and folks are really friendly. The food stalls have also improved a lot over the years , nit that I had time to try any treats or any of the other medicinal substances on sale.

Arriving into San Francisco late in the afternoon on Saturday I was eager to make up for lost time on Sunday and so I arrived at Golden Gate Park at starting time of 11.00am and headed for The Rooster Stage  for Jon Langford & The Bright Shiners who included a fair few Mekons songs in the set, naturally enough. After securing myself a prime spot on the hill stage right I enjoyed Eilen Jewel and her band sounding fabulous with guitarist Jerry Miller shining. The sound on this outdoor stage was exceptional.

I had to forego my prime spot in the shade to head downhill to the Swan Stage for John Doe’s Folk Trio which was thoroughly entertaining and included songs from his days with X including a really great acoustic version of ‘The New World’. Then it was back to The Rooster Stage for half an hour of Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express who embody what San Francisco is all about. About turn to get back down for Valerie June who put in a wonderful 50 minutes on Swan with a beautiful reading of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’.

You’ve probably worked out by now that all this going and froing, up and downhill, is soon going to get pretty exhausting (in fact I did have the best sleep of the trip that night). My decision for the remainder of the day was made when a very kind person found me a fabulous spot on the side of the hill overlooking The Swan Stage and the fact that Boz Scaggs was sitting near me at one point sealed the deal. That was my lookout. I could enjoy the Jerry Douglas Band and then Kurt Vile & The Violators and also clearly and loudly hear Neal Francis and his funky outfit (who I heard just two nights before in Texas) and Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit on the adjacent Towers of Gold Stage as the crossover acts. Brilliant decision!

Jerry Douglas continues to be a revelation. I was blown away seeing him last year at Americana and equally knocked out this time, especially when he performed George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ Brilliant. I last saw Kurt Vile here when he played with Courtney Barnett and in his own show his guitar playing shone again. The audience obviously loved him so it was a triumphant return. By this time in the afternoon, the sun had set, the clouds had blown over and I was freezing. Lucky it ends at 7.00pm.

Now what I am about to propose might sound like a crazy idea but hear me out. Want to go to the music festival with probably the best line-up of ‘roots’ and, yes, Americana acts you are ever likely to see on one line-up – and all for free? Then, you should make sure your next trip to the USA coincides with the extraordinary Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival held over the last weekend of September.

Or, you could throw your all annual festival eggs into one basket and when airfares are back to pre-Covid levels you could fly to San Francisco just for Hardly Strictly and get all your festivaling done in one hit. You’d need to arrive on the Thursday prior to the weekend so that you could acclimatise and catch one for the special shows that usually happens on the night prior. Last year it was Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris and on the following night Elvis Costello played the songs of Jerry Garcia. This year you could see Christine Kingfish Ingram at the Great American Music Hall or Wynton Marsalis at the SF Jazz Festival.