Skip to main content

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival honors its fallen heroes.

By Bruce Sylvester

The spirit of the recently departed hovered above last weekend’s 12th annual totally free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It especially honored the event’s founder and funder, Warren Hellman. North Carolina octogenarians Earl Scruggs (banjo maestro) and Doc Watson (a walking encyclopedia of American music) too died since 2011’s festival. Appreciation of the three abounded on all six of this year’s event’s stages.

Country music having long been family music, we heard the Del McCoury Band and the O’Brien Party of 7 – Tim O’Brien, older sister Mollie (his first duet partner), her husband, and four of the elder O’Briens’ offspring, one of whom used his feet for percussion. From their tribute album to Roger Miller, a line mentioning “prime number” evinced well-educated performers singing to a well-educated audience.

Then there was southwestern Virginia’s Ralph Stanley (at 85, the last man standing among the early heroes of bluegrass) with his Clinch Mountain Boys, including grandson Nathan Stanley, who now handles some between-song talk. Ralph demonstrated the clawhammer banjo style “I learned from my mother a little less than 100 years ago” and gave chilling “O Death” way more vocal ornamentation than he used on 1940s-60s recordings with his late older brother, Carter Stanley. Jim Lauderdale – vivid in a purple suit – joined him to sing the title track from their collaborative CD “I Feel Like Singing Today.”

Vibrant vintage steel guitar work graced the Time Jumpers’ pre-1950 country/jazz/pop from west of the Mississippi as well as Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys’ honky tonk. Mead’s set closed with a resurrection of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor.”

John Langford & His Sadies (of course featuring Sally Timms) ended their wittily cynical set (“Get the Money”) with a charging punk take on Johnny Cash’s Sun-era “Big River.” I didn’t get to Hollywood star John Reilly & Friends’ Friday noon opening set, but people said it was strong, and I can certainly vouch for their recorded songs.

Major life decision: whether to leave Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones after their searing reliving of 1950s R&B man Johnny Ace’s final back-stage Russian roulette game in order to hear Allison Moorer do her Oscar-nominated “Soft Place to Fall” (from “Horse Whisperer”) and summon up her contralto to full force for her finale, a cover of Sam Cooke’s discreetly political “Change Is Gonna Come.” People told me that Dave’s older brother (and long ago Blasters teammate) Phil Alvin joined him for “What’s Up with Your Brother?” Maybe Phil’s recent health problems (apparently now resolved) pushed the Alvin boys to shore up their sometimes fractious relationship.

Conor Oberst programmed one stage for all of Friday, bringing not terribly well known people he thinks we should hear: Jenny Lewis, Ben Kweller, Beachwood Sparks, Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express and (formerly of the Felice Brothers and The Duke and the King) the Adirondack Mountains’ intense Simone Felice. Partly due to slow mass transit, I missed Felice’s show to my chagrin, but someone told that it was super and (to console me) that she’d listened to it for me. Oberst ended his stage’s day with powerful “Make War.”

A few other high points: Robin Hitchcock’s dadaist songs. Patti Smith exhorting the crowd, “G-L-O-R-I-A!” Steve Earle explaining to his cheering fans that he wrote “Harlem Man” and “The Mountain” in the voice of the same character but decades apart in age. Elvis Costello whistling a verse of cheery “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” (viva vintage pop!) before his own “Watching the Detectives.” Elvis mentioned that his grandfather, a movie theater pianist in the silent film era, had lost his job due to Al Jolson.

To be honest, the festival wasn’t without a low point: all the people who would never have attended if it hadn’t been free and who yakked on their cell phones or to their friends all through performances. Fans who’d come for the music (the purpose of the festival), sometimes traveling cross country or even across oceans, couldn’t always hear it very well. Hardly anyone sitting near me at Justin Townes Earle’s quiet set was paying any attention to him at all.

So what was Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2012’s high point for me? The Barr Brothers’ shape-shifting show with thought-provoking lyrics reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s, delicate harp interludes, and an otherworldly bottleneck guitar intro to “Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying” whose vocals seemed to channel Skip James more than Muddy Waters.

RIP: Warren Hellman, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson.