In its fifteenth year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass set up shop for the weekend across Golden Gate Park, welcoming back both longtime fans and newcomers alike to its three day sonic sanctuary. Founded by the late Warren Hellman, the festival has become a little less than a best kept secret amongst locals over the last decade and a half, as this year it welcomed over 750,000 attendees to view more than 100 artists across seven stages.
But it separates itself from other Bay Area festivals, such as Outside Lands and Treasure Island, by priding itself on its total focus on the fans, and lack of corporate backings and huge, on-trend food courts. From Outer Sunset locals to Baltimore-based tourists, people from all over the country sang and danced through the blistering sun and gusts of wind as one harmonious, music-loving force, demonstrating a visual confirmation that San Francisco’s beloved Hardly Strictly will be back for years to come.
Artists like Jessica Pratt, Paul Weller, Flogging Molly, and Angel Olsen certainly put the “hardly” in Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Pratt kicked off the weekend’s festivities on the Rooster stage with a short but sweet (no matter how big the festival gets, technical difficulties will always be an unavoidable surprise guest) set of heavenly folk. As a former San Franciscan herself, one could tell that the festival was a special place for Pratt, and she effortlessly conjured up some of the magic she experienced herself in years past. Paul Weller, formerly of the Jam, brought some of his 1970s punk flair to the bluegrass fest, drowning out neighboring banjos with electric guitars, and harmonicas with drum kits.
Following Weller was Flogging Molly, who provided bluegrass fans with an extended set of Celtic punk rock, inciting chant-like sing-a-longs, mosh pits, and crowd surfing. However, the band proved an appropriate headliner for the festival as accordions and Irish flutes were featured prominently in nearly every song. Angel Olsen, the folk rock darling from Missouri, drew a headliner-sized audience to the Rooster stage at noon on Sunday, belting out tales of lost love in an operatic-esque voice backed by a full band. The hottest noon sun couldn’t stop Olsen-fanatics from rushing to the stage hours early in anticipation of their dream folk hero.
Prior to Angel Olsen, and more on the “strictly” side of the bill, Brooklynites Spirit Family Reunion kicked off the final day of festivities. With a solid 40 minute’s worth of pure bluegrass, they used everything from banjos to metal spoons to spin stories of nomadic lifestyles and broken hearts into strong, hoedown-worthy jams. Earlier in the weekend, the Naughts’ favorite indie folk singer-songwriters, M. Ward and Conor Oberst, decided to meld their respective sets together and perform both classics and covers for nearly an hour and a half, inviting the Felice Brothers (who played earlier that afternoon) to accompany them.
Although many fans were looking forward to hearing Bright Eyes originals and Ward-ian hits like “Chinese Translation,” the duo used their star power to create an idyllic atmosphere, and were able to synergize so effortlessly that the audience only danced and smiled more as it grew in size. The following evening, HSB veteran Boz Scaggs grooved Gold Stage attendees into the sunset. Using his enchanting blend of both bluegrass and funk, Scaggs incited a meadow full of both dedicated fans and casual listeners alike to dance with each other and sing along at the top of their lungs, truly encapsulating the spirit of the festival.
As attendees piled into the 5 to retreat down Fulton like a can of sardines and the stages were torn down onto the muddy grass, the festival sent fans off with more of a “see you later” than a “goodbye.” Hardly Strictly is almost like modern-day love-in: free music for a sea of friendly people where no one is a stranger, all backdropped magnificently by Golden Gate Park. It’s our local treasure: a gem that will remain for years to come.
Photo courtesy of Racquel Gonzales/Foghorn