If you can walk, bike, hitchhike, fly, burn bridges down on the way to, take a rusty Greyhound with strangers, or otherwise traverse some bone-treaded road to get to San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, you must do so.
A legacy gift of Warren Hellman, private equity pioneer and banjo-believer, the festival takes place every year in Golden Gate Park for three days, is entirely free, and is built on the belief that good music should be experienced by the people. I’ve set the scene in a previous piece about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, but it’s worth noting again that the crowd is heterogeneous, convivial, and spirited in a way that people who paid for festival passes could never be. Go to melt in the sun or disappear under the ubiquitous umbrella of fog, while some legend of bluegrass or lesser-known singer-songwriter warbles stories that could only be built from this country’s rootstock.
You can view the full the full schedule here, but I’ve compiled a list of a few acts who I think are not to miss this year. It goes without saying that this list doesn’t include the more obvious choices such as T Bone Burnett, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and The Dustbowl Revival (and so on).
A singer-songwriter of Scottish origin, Johnathan Rice is probably most well known for having a few of his songs from Trouble is Real featured on The O.C. and his ongoing collaboration with Jenny Lewis as Jenny and Johnny. His latest solo release, Good Graces, plays like a love letter with a few ominous notes, and has a 70s funk infusion that feels fresh and vintage in just the right way. Just so long as he plays The Acrobat on Friday.
The Oh Hellos
This sibling duo—Tyler and Maggie Heath and one rockin’ band—hails from Texas and are going to set fire to the Swan Stage on Friday. Don’t believe me? Just listen to Eat Me Alive or Wishing Well from their 2012 release, Through the Deep, Dark Valley. They sing about grief and lamentation with a sanguine exuberance that beats like a drum in the back of the throat and makes it way down into toes that somehow have maintained the desire to dance. Their newest album, Dear Wormwood, will be released on October 16th.
Conor Oberst Brings Friends for Friday
Based on the crowd at Conor Oberst’s shows at HSB over the last few years, I’m not sure people need convincing. But this year he’ll hit the stage following the likes of his fellow Monster’s of Folk band mate, M. Ward, along with The Felice Brothers, and Laura Marling. Need I say more?
The Milk Carton Kids
Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, a duo that certainly must be influenced by the quiet and wistful harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, write the kind of songs you should listen to while driving away from somewhere, or someone. An apparition that will soon fade into a memory plays back like a blurry image from a travel reel (see: Michigan). The Milk Carton Kids released their beautiful new album, Monterey, in May of this year. It’s a contemplative album that follows the whims of the road—loneliness, longing for home, and the slipperiness of time; and much like the scenes from your rearview, they are sounds you won’t soon forget.
I accidentally discovered Joe Pug a few years back in Austin when I decided that the venue he was playing that night would be the best place to see a show (bless you, Stubb's). It was his tour for Nation of Heat, and I’ll never forget hearing Nation of Heat, Hymn #101 and Hymn #35 for the first time in that place. If you’ve seen him live and experienced the fervor with which he tells his stories and the relentless honestly he uses to craft them—you’d never question that these songs certainly are hymns. Let’s worship.
Gregory Alan Isakov
Please listen to If I Go, I’m Going and come back and tell me you that don’t want to hear this man’s voice settling like mist above the Blue Gum Eucalyptus, pines, and redwoods of the park. Isakov has a lo-fi voice that could crank forth from some ancient radio and deliver good news from an era we forgot long ago.
Did someone say rhythm and blues? At approximately at 4:55pm on Sunday, some things are gonna heat up at the Porch Stage. This southern crooner hailing from Athens, Alabama released his debut album, Delilah, in July of this year. Like the legends before him, East spent time recording songs at the iconic FAME studios and it’s not hard hear that influence lingering in the cadence of this album. If the house of those old ghosts is where he’s getting started, it's only up from here.
Here’s a long form Hardly Strictly Bluegrass playlist featuring these artists and others that you can enjoy until Friday: