(Hardly) Bluegrass In the Park - By Volume

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(Hardly) Bluegrass In the Park

Our recap of HSB 14 — possibly America’s finest massive music festival.

Author: on October 17, 2014
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For the last fourteen years, the first weekend of October has been occupied by a special event for the city of San Francisco. A three day festival, that combines exceptional music, a laid back, extremely family-friendly atmosphere, a wide variety of scrumptious food (and of course, BYOB) along with some of the finest stage hands, management crew and volunteer staff I’ve ever encountered at a major music event. Granted, its first few years weren’t quite as enormous as what Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has become — which is now one of the largest music festivals on the planet – and the entry is completely free. HSB resides in a unique space where it’s completely untouched by corporate influence, giving those who work and perform there the ability to concentrate on what’s most important about these huge events: the music.

This aspect is attributed to its bankrolling by the Hellman family — more precisely the late (great) Warren Hellman, a very successful private equity investor, who set aside money for HSB’s extremely talented booking and production staff to arrange and erect this amazing event since 2001. Nearly 700,000 people attend over three days, taking up a particularly huge chunk of Golden Gate Park to bask in the late summer heat. Though, because of how enormous the festival grounds are, and how well the lanes of travel are organized, it rarely gets uncomfortably congested. I mean, 250,000 people in a field every days is still 250,000 people in a field, but HSB is organized so efficiently between its seven stages, that moving around never feels overbearing. There’s a community feeling to the event, and this probably has a lot to do with its generous nature (free event, very limited press, and extremely artist-friendly) and it seeps through down to its attendees as well. It’s just as rewarding to plop down at nearly any stage for the days as it is to bounce around, trying to get the most out of each day’s stacked lineup. Which, mind you, the Hardly Strictly plays a huge part of.

This year alone you could see The Aquabats!, Lucinda Williams, Waxahatchee, Sharon Van Etten and Yo La Tengo – in just the first day. Or say, Built to Spill, Social Distortion and Deltron 3030 and the 3030 Orchestra just camping out at the Towers of Gold Stage all day Saturday. Emmylou Harris closed fifteen minutes after everyone else, as she does every year, allowing her voice to echo through the foggy fields as the sun sets and HSB comes to an end. This is just a small piece of what could be experienced at Hardly Strictly, a truly matchless and irreplaceable event everyone should have the pleasure of attending at least once.

As usual I’ll hand out some mock awards of a sort, for the little (or sometimes HUGE) things that make a exceptional musical festival, well, exceptional.

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Like most years, HSB draws immense crowds.

Open the Door Award: Waxahatchee

Runner-Up: The Sam Chase and the Untraditionals.

 

Waxahatchee opening up HSB at Rooster Stage.

Waxahatchee opening up HSB at Rooster Stage.

Katie Crutchfield took the Rooster Stage at noon to set-off the Festival on Friday afternoon, with just herself, her echoing voice, and an accompanying guitarist. Her cover of Great Thunder’s “Chapel of Pines” was angelic, and her closing triple of “Peace and Quiet”, “I Think I Love You” and “You’re Damaged” were understatedly beautiful.

Some special considerations need to go out to The Sam Chase and the Untraditionals that joined them to open Sunday morning at the Arrow Stage. Their mix of country twang, folksy strings, punk rock abandon, bluesy horns, haunting vocal melodies, with a lead singer that sounds like he belongs fronting a hardcore punk band, was intoxicating to say the least. This young, local Bay Area band already possess a commanding and exciting presence on stage that is difficult to shake.

Loud As Fuck Award:

Ryan Adams and Yo La Tengo

To close Friday night, Ryan Adams and Yo La Tengo were each situated at separate stages, each at one end of a large field. If one were to spend their time at a single stage, you’d witness one of HSB’s finest live performances of the entire weekend. Ryan Adams was an exceptional showman, connecting with the crowd during his songs, helping you feel like you were some physical necessity for the tune’s competition.

Yo La Tengo connected to the crowd in a much different, more subtly personal way. Ira Kaplan took the time to explain to the crowd, in his usual, no-bullshit manner, how this was their first HSB, though for a while they had admired the festival from a distance, even going to far as to ask the crowd how he should refer to them. “San Francisco? Or… Hardly Strictly Bluegrass?!” – you can imagine which coerced the largest uproar.

Should you travel directly in between the two stages though, your ears and body would be bombarded by torrents of echoing distortion and wailing guitars. Which was itself, pretty fucking impressive, but it was more fun to pick a stage and stick to it — they just made it terribly difficult to choose which was the final destination.

For The Keeds Award:

The Aquabats!

Every first Friday of HSB, the festival buses in thousands of school children from around the Bay Area to attend the festival for what is officially known as Kid’s Day. For a while now Oakland’s own MC Hammer has been the man to hold down the Kid’s Show during the early afternoon – the event which all these school children are brought in to see, specifically. This year, unfortunately, he couldn’t make it, but as is their way, The Aquabats! were here to save the day! And well, they really fucking did. Adorned in those (awesome) blue costume tights, they were an absolute blast, leaving nearly no one but the sternest curmudgeon sitting still during their entire set.

Elegance Award: Four-Way-Tie:

Sharon Van Etten, Lucinda Williams, Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris

Simply put: you can’t learn this shit. From Roseanne Cash’s heartwarming and personal tales from her storied life, to Lucinda Williams virtuoso guitar skills, Emmylou Harris’ ethereal presence (she serenaded crew and early arrival fans on Saturday morning — her voice cutting through the dawn’s haze) topped off by Van Etten’s exclamation she was going to “fucking kill this show” for a fan in the audience celebrating his birthday – these four artist possessed a presence on stage nearly unmatched by anyone else I had the pleasure of seeing at HSB. They drew you in and were nearly unforgettable afterwards.

Uncommon Graciousness Award:

Jeff Tweedy and Mark Kozelek

Sun Kil Moon combating the merciless heat.

Sun Kil Moon combating the merciless heat.

Performing with Tweedy and Sun Kil Moon respectively, Jeff Tweedy and Mark Kozelek were both not only incredibly captivating liver performers, whose voices have only gotten better with age, but were both gracious hosts of us as their audiences. Tweedy shared jokes and small anecdotes with his audience, while Kozelek expressed his true love for his hometown, and played electric guitar for the first time in what he said had been eight years. At one point changing up his set list as the sun was shining too bright down onto the Rooster stage and he couldn’t see his tuner. For the bad wrap Kozelek has garnered (sometimes, deservedly) over the years, he was nothing but the quintessential gentleman when it came to performing for his hometown.

Jaw Dropped Award:

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn are two absurdly talented musicians, both could be considered masters of their beloved banjos (not to mention any number of other instruments). Couple that with Washburn’s angelic voice and their effortless finger picks become that much more entrancing. Just watching the two of them play would have been enough, but hearing what came of it was truly a pleasure to behold.\

House Brought Down Award:

Deltron 3030 and The 3030 Orchestra

Del and the 3030 Orchestra.

Del and the 3030 Orchestra.

In the middle of Saturday afternoon’s blazing heat Deltron 3030 hopped on his skateboard to cruise around Golden Gate Park before taking the stage to perform with the 3030 Orchestra. Who knows what was going through his mind as he zipped past concert goers, prepping himself for his upcoming set. On stage, you could feel the confidence oozing from him. At one point, imploring the crowd from his hometown to scream even louder following a fucking rousing performance of “Positive Contact”. Supported up by a full band, back up vocalists and a brass section, along with DJ Quest, Del was the ultimate funky homosapien, and for a solid hour, was undeniably our cyborg leader.

Surprising Discoveries Award:

Striking Matches and Kate York

One of the most rewarding aspect of music festivals (or well, getting stuck somewhere at them) is you’re forced, at times, to discover new music you’d otherwise never encounter. Even as we in the blogosphere love to admire our musical tastes and it’s probable vastness, I’ll gladly admit that one of the drawbacks of listening to a fuck ton of music is, well, missing out on so much other great material in lieu of wading through shit for the sake of new experience.

Kate York has made quite the name for herself within Nashville’s huge music culture over the past decade, and while that may be all you really need to enjoy a relatively successful country music career – I’ve a feeling she’ll soon be destined for much more. Her voice is terribly powerful and as a songwriter, she’s personal, eloquent and can write a severely catchy hook.

Similarly rising from Nashville’s vibrant music scene, Striking Matches is a duo consisting of two guitarist and vocalists. Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis poured their hearts out onto the Rooster Stage during the early portion of Saturday’s proceedings. Their songs were at times both luscious yet minimal, consisting predominantly of two acoustic guitars strumming along with their vocal harmonies. Which is great considering Zimmerman and Davis harmonize like they were meant to do nothing else — it was a stirring performance to say the least, from a band well worth investigating deeper.

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Everything must come to an end.

Though I feel like I say this a lot around here – this may actually be the best festival experience I’ve had the pleasure to live through, and will hold it with me for years to come. The easy-going nature of HSB, along with its lack of any lurking corporate overlords, allows to a certain ease to your breathing. As both a festival goer and employee, HSB 14 was exceptionally empathetic to your needs. The staff was always happy and helpful (both in-front-of, and backstage), and the seemingly endless amount of local food, drinks, brews and shops lining the booths in between the staging areas gives HSB a particularly local community feeling to it’s 700,000+ yearly attendees. It is one of the most unique events to attend for that reason alone, really. There’s that epic sense you get from a massive crowd attuned to whomever is standing on the stage in front of them, along with a distinctly San-Francisco-take on things. Similar to an Outside Lands in a sense, but severely less touched by corporate greed. The food is put there to feed you, not make the promoters a profit through license sales. You’re encouraged to bring your own alcohol, and as it’s Golden Gate Park, you can carry open containers (just don’t be a fool and sell *anything*). You can bring your own food in too, should you wish. While baggage and personal checks at the entrance gate are minimal at their worst. Coupled with the fact that you spend three days witnessing excellent music, from a diverse lineup, nestled into one of the best festival venues on the planet, for well, fucking free – you can’t do much better than Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, no matter how hard you try.

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