Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2012 Recap

Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional plays at the Arrow Stage Friday afternoon in, hands down, one of the “hardliest” parts of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. (Ellen Huet/treeswingers)

At the 12th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, you could listen to acts all weekend and never hear a banjo.

Of course, it would take a little wrangling and stage-hopping, but it’s a testament to the widening range of style at San Francisco’s famously free festival in the park.

Twelve years ago, local 1 percenter and amateur bluegrass player Warren Hellman asked the legendary Hazel Dickens to play a twangin’, string-pickin’ concert in Golden Gate Park–then dubbed Strictly Bluegrass. But this weekend, many of the major forces behind it were now smiling down from above instead of from the stage: Dickens, Hellman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson all passed away in recent years. (Though they did manage to grab a little stage presence–their illustrated faces hung from the backdrops of several stages.)

In those dozen years, the festival grew to embrace performers ranging as far offside as MC Hammer. Stop! Hammertime.

That’s why Treeswingers’ Friday schedule ran more like a side stage at Coachella, starting with a throwback to middle school.

Chris Carrabba, best known as the voice that belted out the most plaintive of lyrics for Dashboard Confessional, was a welcome surprise during the sparse early-afternoon crowds Friday. The first day is always more breathable than Saturday and Sunday–many artists teased the half-hooky-player, half-retiree audience with calls of, “Shouldn’t you be at work?” But Carrabba looked thrilled to have a small but attentive audience. He plowed through a cover-heavy set, hitting the Talking Heads’ “And She Was,” Weezer’s “El Scorcho,” and–in a well-executed, bluegrass-tinged nod–Gillian Welch’s “Hard Times.” But the millennials in the crowd rejoiced when he bowed to their desires and closed with “Vindicated” and “Hands Down.” Nostalgia rules all, and Carrabba, thankfully, wasn’t above acknowledging it.

Back at the Rooster Stage, a mop-headed Ben Kweller took to the stage rocking, of all things, a sleeveless denim vest. Fashion choices aside, though, he reinforced himself with the steady strumbeats of “Fight,” “Jealous Girl,” and “Penny On The Train Track,” a wholesome but energetic closer. Still, he couldn’t quite compare to his following act: Jenny Lewis, ever the auburn-haired vixen, swayed on stage flanked by the towering Watson Twins, all in matching black frocks. She put out a solid set, with songs like “Close Call” and the heart-breaking “I Never” hearkening from her Rilo Kiley era as well as more recent tunes like “You Are What You Love” and the perfect-fitting closer, “Next Messiah.” Conor Oberst, the man who brought them all together, came out as the sun was setting and, sporting a hat, long dark hair and face-blocking sunglasses a la MJ, called out all his previous acts to join in. He slowed it down for the painful and sweet “Lua” but played “Easy/Lucy/Free” with such gusto that he broke a string. That may not be very bluegrass, but it’s dedication.

Red Prairie. (Photo courtesy of SF Chronicle)

Saturday morning opened with the most heartfelt tribute to Hellman, whose presence was sorely missed but strongly felt all weekend. The Go to Hell Man Clan, made of Hellman’s children and grandchildren, gave an amateur but pluckish set of folk classics like “Gold Watch and Chain” in his name, starring on several songs his banjo-pickin’ grandson Matt. More old-timers followed, among them mainstays Guy Clarke and Verlon Thompson, who sat in folding chairs on stage and sang old songs about border-crossing coyotes (the people, not the animals) with the stance of old men kicking back on a porch. For the easy-going pace of the morning and early afternoon, all felt at peace.

But then: the Lumineers’ influx. Whatever peaceful agreements were established between neighbors on the lawn as to whose turf was whose were shattered when Rooster stage was flooded with eager fans hoping to catch an eyeful and earful of the Americana-tinged Denver band. They played all the stage-stomping, hand-clapping favorites, including their live staple “I Ain’t Nobody’s Problem” and the ubiquitous (and suspiciously Edward Sharpe-esque, but we’ll let it slide) “Hey Ho.” Then, thankfully, the masses returned to the other side of the park to catch The Head and the Heart. We stayed for Patty Griffin, whose smooth croonings last year let us know where the talent (and where less hype) could be found again. Working solo with just an acoustic-electric and her voice, Griffin nevertheless showed that less can be more, with  “No Bad News” and a haunting rendition of a recurring live song that advises “You can go wherever you want to go.”

Orange-haired Glen Hansard sans orange beanie. (Photo courtesy of SF Chronicle)

By Sunday, the grounds were slightly muddy with dew (and maybe last night’s spilled beer), but anyone willing to brave the morning got a special treat when Jim Lauderdale started a spontaneous set during soundcheck a half-hour before the festival officially began. The veteran rocker, known for his prolific work ethic and showy stage attire, managed not to look too silly with windswept gray hair and a deep purple suit. He jammed alongside Buddy Miller for songs like “Troublemaker” and “Always on the Outside” and went solo on others. But he far outstripped his early-morning set time and even elicited cheers when he snuck out after his set and passed by the audience. His following acts weren’t as lucky: Black Prairie, a last-minute replacement for an artist who called in sick, took to the stage with a dark-tinged Gogol-Bordello-esque act that mixed fiddle, autoharp, accordion and an odd violin-horn hybrid instrument. The Portland-based group did their best to rally the crowd, but without luck.

People were probably saving it for the next guy. Glen Hansard pulled the people in like iron filings to a magnet — if the magnet was just, at times, one guy with a guitar. Even when backed by the many folks in the Frames, Hansard shone with sheer energy, rocking out so violently to his opener “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” that his orange beanie fell right off his equally orange hair. His face often turned bright red during long sustained notes and he was almost comically intense, but anyone who was laughing was somber in a second when he pulled back on “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and “Bird of Sorrow.” He didn’t touch his biggest hit, “Falling Slowly,” but instead closed with a hip-shaker, a tribute to Levon Helms–an irresistibly big-band cover of The Band’s “Don’t Do It.”

Glen Hansard-Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting (download)

The Lumineers-Big Parade (download)

Ben Kweller-Penny on the Train Track (download)

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