SAN FRANCISCO — Tens of thousands crammed into the meadow in front of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’ Towers of Gold Stage to see the seemingly annual appearance of Robert Plant, this time with the Sensational Space Shifters. While the free music is always packed, the overcrowding seemed even tighter on Saturday. With the hill that separates the meadow from the Polo Fields fenced off, people were more or less stacked on top of each other everywhere else.
And Plant didn’t disappoint. His roughly 10-song, 60-minute set kicked into high gear right away with “When the Levee Breaks,” a cover of Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy’s tune. Plant’s version was meditative and punctuated by violin stabs by a member of his talented band.
A good portion of the set consisted of covers, but not until, he worked his way through the folky “Turn It Up” and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” On the latter, it seemed like the entire meadow was sinning along to the organ-led melody, tinged with acoustic guitars and fiddle. Unfortunately on other songs the sound was generally drowned out by crowd noise.
Another original that went over well was “Carry Fire,” which had an Eastern European folk-like intro that led into a bassy dirge with Middle-Eastern undertone.
A little over an hour before his headlining set, Plant surprised the crowd at the Rooster stage when he stopped by to join his old friend Buddy Miller, who was performing along with Dirk Powell and Stuart Duncan, as they opened their set with a rendition of Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine.”
“In case you all didn’t know, that was Robert Plant,” Miller helpfully informed the delighted audience, which got a few laughs, including from Plant himself.
The New Pornographers had fun with their fans, telling jokes throughout their poppy (at least by Hardly Strictly standards) set on the Swan Stage.
At one point, the band apologized for swearing once in a song in front of a crowd that had many children.
“Usually we’re a family friendly band, except for the name of our band,” singer Neko Case explained. Added the band: “We’re called the News Photographers.”
The band’s set included the exuberant ‘Testament to Youth in Verse,” Brit-pop-influenced “The Surprise Knock” and leisurely “Higher Beams.”
At the Banjo stage, rising country star Margo Price showed off her powerful voice and songwriting sensibilities with a set that could lead one to wonder if headlining the festival might be the next step for her. Price performed with a confidence and energy that belied her relative newcomer status compared to many of the acts at Hardly Strictly. And covering a legend like Dolly Parton with a rousing rendition of “9-to-5” cemented her place in many fans’ hearts.
Perhaps the most “hardly strictly” moment of the day came at the Towers of Gold stage, where New Orleans funk, rock and hip-hop outfit Tank and the Bangas tore it up for a large and enthusiastic crowd that might’ve been left over from that other festival held in Golden Gate Park every summer.
Dressed in bright, clashing colors and twirling a giant green balloon, lead vocalist Tarriona “Tank” Ball took command of the stage and probably left a few Americana fans more than a bit confused by what they were witnessing, especially when the band careened into a wild cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The newly anointed “queen of country soul,” Yola made her Hardly Strictly debut Saturday. The soulful and once-homeless British singer, whose debut album, “Walk Through Fire,” was produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach for his Easy Eye Sounds label, was a revelation with her soaring vocals and country-laden Motown sensibilities.
The Budos Band, hailing from New York, kicked things off on the Swan stage with a funky groove and blistering horns that had the early arrivers dancing from the first notes. Percussionist John Carbonella, Jr. left his kit to jump around and energize the crowd while bassist Daniel Foder paced the stage relentlessly.
As the Budos Band wrapped up its set, Bay Area native Laurie Lewis and her band The Right Hands brought a very different style across the park at the Banjo Stage.
“It’s a pleasure being here, putting the bluegrass back in Hardly Strictly,” Lewis mused wistfully to the delight of the bluegrass fans packing the lawn. Gathered around a single microphone, Lewis led her band with an infectious joy.
Over at the Rooster stage, legendary songwriter and Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock took to the piano to entertain the crowd with a selection of his greatest hits spanning decades, including “People Are Crazy” and Toby Keith hit “I Wanna Talk About Me.” Though hard to see at times because he was hunched over the piano and hidden behind a music stand, Braddock’s depth of material spanning five decades shone brightly.