Annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is hardly strictly bluegrass.

By Bruce Sylvester

Last weekend’s 14th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was, as ever, a phenomenal extravaganza of free, (mostly) American roots music – seven stages this time – in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Best moment of all? I’d vote for Lucinda Williams — in her first appearance ever at the fest – introducing songs from her scorching new two-CD Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone alongside earlier discs’ jagged jewels like “Joy” and “Get Right with God” (revamped here with the band chanting, “Stand on the rock,” toward its close).   The new album’s ominous blues rock “Something Wicked This Way Comes”  derives from the southern gothic writings of the late Flannery O’Connor. As a young child, Lucinda once accompanied her father and mentor, poet Miller Williams, on a visit to O’Connor. Her new “Temporary Nature (of Any Precious Thing)” quietly looks at his ongoing decline due to Alzheimer’s (“Why are we made to weather these storms?”).   The CD’s title comes from his poem “Compassion,” which she’s set to music to open the disc.

At age 87, Ralph Stanley has understandably passed much of his show’s work to his Clinch Mountain Boys (including his promising grandson Nathan Stanley).   Still, when he takes center stage, he remains one of the most dramatic vocalists in all of American music.   As he lingers on the line “Spare me over for another year” in “O Death,” we wonder how much more that line may mean to him now than when he sang it in the 1950s. A year ago, he announced that he’d retire by the end of 2014, but judging by things said on stage last weekend, he’s changed his mind.   Good!

The Time Jumpers returned us to the golden age of bluegrass, the ‘40s and early ‘50s.   Mavis Staples took us to church and then to Civil Rights era freedom marches. Dave and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones rockified Big Bill Broonzy’s blues and revisited their Blasters-era classics like “Marie Marie.” The Dave Rawlings Machine (now including John Paul Jones, once of Led Zeppelin, and Willie Watson, once of Old Crow Medicine Show) wowed the crowd by revamping Led Zep material.

With so many stages to choose from at any given moment, you had to skip a few acts you like.   I totally missed Chris Isaak to join Steve Earle’s biggest fans dancing and bonding beneath his stage.   Shawn Colvin joined him for one song.

As for humor, Robbie Fulks (once fondly dubbed the Dennis the Menace of country music) and his crew did his salute to North Carolina (“the cigarette state”) and did an extended instrumental with philosophical parallels to pieces by P.D.Q. Bach and the late pianist Jonathan Edwards and his wife Darlene.

Hard-core, strict grammarians surely appreciated Kieran Kane’s treating trad English ballad “Handsome Molly” to a proper verb tense (unlike any other “Molly” version I’ve ever encountered).

Some of the best moments were at the two smallest stages, where listeners tended to be people sincerely interested in the music. Watson earned a standing ovation for his solo acoustic trad set including English horse-race song “Stewball” and Charley Jordan’s risqué 1930s blues “Keep It Clean.” Oklahoma-born Parker Millsap trenchantly probed the darkness at edge of the churchyard.

Were there downsides?   Well, as ever, the free event attracted music devotees flying in from all over the world but also loads of people who traveled minimal distances and then talked constantly with each other or on their phones.   Looking out over the sea of faces at Justin Townes Earle’s set, I saw very few people paying any attention at all to him.

One final suggestion to the woman whose constant yakking during Mavis Staples’ show forced my friend and me to move about 10 feet: Every time I glanced over in your direction, your lips were still flapping. Next year, try listening to the music. It’s good.

On the plus side, the audience was great about meeting requests from the stage to leave no litter behind.   Judging by aromas, they also tended to heed requests to not smoke tobacco.

Of course, the spirit of the fest’s late founder and funder, banjo-playing investment banker Warren Hellman, was everywhere.   Thanks to his family for continuing the tradition.   Maybe it could only happen in San Francisco — a city where a barefoot septuagenerian will climb a tree to better see Lucinda Williams.

About Bruce Sylvester

Bruce Sylvester is a regular contributor to Goldmine magazine.

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