Shay Quillen reports from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
With improbably summery weather and a predictably stellar lineup mixing old favorites with young up-and-comers, San Francisco’s 13th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival got off to a hot start Friday.
My friend and I bypassed the Seldom Scene’s smooth bluegrass on the big Banjo Stage to start our day with Low on the smaller Arrow Stage. The indie-rock trio’s deliberate tempos, stark harmonies and searching lyrics could have fallen flat on a glorious afternoon in Golden Gate Park, but with help from fellow Minnesotans Trampled by Turtles (slated to perform at the festival Sunday), the band provided some refreshing emotional shade on a sunny day. “Sorry about all the dark songs,” singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk said unnecessarily before the Low/Turtles hybrid began a painfully gorgeous reading of “Sunflower.”
We stayed put for Father John Misty, a.k.a. Joshua Tillman, former drummer of Fleet Foxes. Mr. Misty performed alone with an acoustic guitar, framed inside a representation of a giant iPhone. That was a clever-enough commentary on audiences’ fixation on their handheld devices, but once the point was made, it was just cardboard marring the view. His snarky between-song patter also got in the way – clearly he’s not an artist with a desperate need to be liked. The performances were spot-on, though, with his strong, clear solo renditions of songs from his terrific “Fear Fun” album sounding like lost classics from the Laurel Canyon days of Jackson Browne and CSNY.
After half a set, we ducked out to hear the day’s biggest buzz band – the Swedish sister act First Aid Kit on the Rooster Stage, curated once again on this Friday by Conor Oberst. By the time we worked our way through the thick crowd, Johanna and Klara Soderberg were showcasing their sibling harmonies on a heartfelt version of Paul Simon’s “America.” Their own American-influenced originals weren’t as memorable, not even their best-known song, “Emmylou” (a fitting selection for this festival), though they’ve got plenty of time to grow – they’re only 20 and 22.
We decided to get a taste of the closing acts on each of Day 1’s three stages. Bonnie Raitt, who lives across the Golden Gate in Marin County, was making her debut at her “hometown” festival at Banjo. We joined a massive crowd for three impeccably performed pop-blues tunes by Raitt and her crack band; after “Something to Talk About,” we headed back to Arrow for a helping of Calexico. The veteran Arizona band’s distinctive Southwestern stew was as tasty as ever, and we would have happily remained, but duty called.
By now, the Rooster audience had noticeably thinned, but Oberst was singing his heart out (doesn’t he always?) with his band, augmented by old Bright Eyes compadre Mike Mogis, who had been playing pedal steel with First Aid Kit. The set peaked with the Soderberg sisters returning to sing harmony and share lead vocals on a muscular, moving “Lua” that trumped the sparse recorded version.
A few minutes past the 7.00pm curfew, we heard Raitt and her band wrapping up a fun romp through the old Elvis hit “A Big Hunk o’ Love,” and the masses headed out into the city, many to delve deeper into the music at a variety of local clubs.
You can watch the webcast of Hardly Strictly at: http://www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com/2013/webcast/