HSBFIt doesn’t get much better than a music festival in Golden Gate Park on a perfect Sunday afternoon–unless it’s free. And the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival always is. Since 2001, Hardly Strictly has been free, unsponsored, and completely open to the public, making it one of the most unique music festivals in the country and one of my favorite events every year.

Despite the festival’s nonexistent admission fee, Hardly Strictly routinely puts together an outstanding lineup that always includes some heavy hitters. Sunday featured big acts such as The String Cheese Incident, Gogol Bordello, and Billy Bragg, in addition to up-and-coming bands Shovels and Rope, as well as Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers.

Throw in some traditional bluegrass and country, and you have a little something for everybody.

I arrived at Hardly Strictly at 10:30am. Showing up early, while not my usual style, allowed me to survey the grounds before the hordes of festival-goers showed up too. It also allowed me to find a good spot for Shovels and Rope, who were playing at 11:00.

I didn’t know a whole lot about this duo from South Carolina going into their set. I’d heard their incredible first single “Birmingham” off their debut album O’ Be Joyful (which came out December of last year), but that was pretty much it. Of course, they opened with the one song I knew, sucking me right in.

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent play the kind of music that’s good for the soul. Featuring nothing but guitars, a drum kit, harmonicas, and occasionally a keyboard, the pair switches off between guitar and drums. Minimal instrumentals allow for the focus to fall on the singing and lyrics: Hearst’s voice is particularly memorable, gritty and twangy in all the right places, and Trent’s voice complements hers nicely. Shovels and Rope is honest and heartfelt, and their honky-tonk folk rock pulled at my southern roots. I walked away feeling joyful indeed.

After the Shovels and Rope set ended, I made my way to the stage where Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers were scheduled to play. This band is homegrown, hailing from San Francisco, so they had a pretty sizable crowd for an early afternoon show. They released their debut self-titled album last month, generating some buzz around the city. Everybody loves it when a local band “makes it.”

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers’s music is the kind of easily approachable bluesy rock and roll that appeals to a wide audience, with the extra kick of a strong female vocalist. Their set mostly featured songs off the new album. The only exception was when rock and roll legend Boz Scaggs joined them on stage as a special guest to perform two of his songs. For me, the highlight of the set was the closer, “Jet Plane,” a song that has all the makings of a hit and featured easily the most ripping guitar solo I’d heard all day.

If you like the music that artists like Grace Potter are making, you should give these guys a listen. They’ll be right up your alley.

Next, after a stop in the shade to rest and hydrate, I made my way over to Billy Bragg, the legendary punk-rocker-turned-country/folk singer. Many place him in the Americana genre, which Bragg, during the set, defined as “country music for people who like the Smiths.” Pretty dead on. He used his set to question traditional masculinity, mock the government shutdown, and advocate for Obamacare, among other things. And while I don’t usually like to mix pleasure and politics, the passion and sincerity in Bragg’s music made it feel less like I was getting beat over the head with somebody’s political views and more like I was one amongst a crowd of people brought together by the power of music.

If you can’t get behind lyrics like “you fascists are going to lose” and “there is power in a union,” then you might want to consider moving somewhere else.

The two highlights of the set for me were when Bragg played one of my all-time favorite Rolling Stones songs, the classic country rock tune “Dead Flowers,” and when Bragg played one of his own classics, “A New England.” The Stones cover featured some excellent work by one of Bragg’s bandmates on a pedal steel guitar, and the lyrics for Bragg’s song were incredibly moving, crossing all political boundaries.

After Billy Bragg, I tried to make my way to the String Cheese Incident, but the park had filled to what felt like over capacity. I think free festivals are awesome, but apparently half the Bay Area shares my sentiment. I didn’t have the energy to fight the crowds anymore, so I decided to go home early and call it a day. Regardless, I was happy to see three artists for the first time, and I left very satisfied. Until next year, Hardly Strictly.

article by Ryan Riedmuller
photo By Raphael Kluzniok/The Chronicle

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