SAN FRANCISCO — Everything one could ask for from a music festival in Golden Gate Park was on display Sunday, as the 19th annual incarnation of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass wrapped up. Fragrances of white sage and eucalyptus trees, elderly hippies in tie-dyed “Make America Grateful Again” T-shirts, and the occasional craft peddler were all present. Temperatures hit 85 degrees as the Bay Area experienced one of its late season heatwaves, and festival-goers jammed in for a prime selection of top flight musicians.
Emmylou Harris, a mainstay of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass over the years, headlined the Banjo stage with a gentle but fortuitous set with her six-member band. The songs were mostly languid and peaceful country reflections, spreading out in gorgeous arrangement like moonlit wheat fields. Harris performed a wistful version of country standard “Pancho & Lefty” and the Robbie-Robertson-penned “Evangeline.” This was followed by the more obscure “Old Five And Dimers Like Me,” performed as a duet with guitarist and mandolin player William Kimbrough.
Harris’ slightly weathered voice carried the show. Emotive and strident, her singing was smooth and comfortable like well-worn leather. Harris led the band with her guitar and trademark rakish stance at the microphone. Although most of the set consisted of soothing, laid-back numbers, she stepped up the energy for her final song, an upbeat “Long May You Run.” The song was a perfect fit for Harris’ unique combination of talents. She nailed sonorous vocal melodies and dug into her rock and Nashville roots. With her winning smile and temerity, Harris put a sweet finish on the festival.
Headlining the Towers Of Gold Stage was Philadelphia rock group Kurt Vile & The Violators. Through the first four songs, auteur Kurt Vile played a different stringed instrument on each song, starting out on a Gibson Les Paul for tough opener “Loading Zones.” Vile then used a Fender Jaguar, running it through boutique tube amps to get a rich, living guitar tone. Vile’s fingerpicking guitar style came through tenaciously in the live setting, especially on the quieter acoustic yarn “Bassackwards.” Here Vile and his band evoked gray days at trashy East Coast beaches, majestic in their implications of vastness.
Vile exuded his dazed, flannel-clad persona with a rambling, Stooges-inflected drawl. His bummed-out, lyrical grumblings struck a chord with the tightly-packed audience on the lawn.
At the Swan Stage, roots rocker Jackie Greene performed a vigorous set. With 13 musicians, Greene’s set was the largest-scale production of the day. The Prairie Singers were featured, along with a horn trio. Greene’s band came on strongly with a James-Brown-inspired funk mashup, the populist “Animal,” and the colossal horn riff of “Hollywood.” Greene strangled Stevie-Ray-Vaughan-like bar blues from his Les Paul and sang with passionate fervor. For the sensitive epic “California,” he sat at the electric piano, accompanied only by guitarist Nathan Dale, who added color to the weighty piano chords. The result was a vital and impacting performance with an excellent live mix.
Earlier in the day, Judy Collins sang folk standards accompanied only by pianist Russell Walden and her own 12-string guitar. Collins was long on storytelling between songs, recalling a disheveled 1961-era Bob Dylan and an anti-Vietnam-War rally in Golden Gate Park. But the 80-year-old folksinger had wit as well.
“Every time you smoke a cigarette, God takes an hour from your life and gives it to Keith Richards,” she quipped at one point.
Collins’s sparse arrangement resulted in some affecting performances. A delicate rendition of Dylan’s “Masters Of War” recalled the optimism and magic of a fascinating time in America, and Collins’ voice was impressively clear and resonant. She finished with an inspired cover of transcendent country meditation “Highwayman.”
Other highlights of the afternoon included sets from Mandolin Orange and rising alt-country star Rayland Baxter. The North Carolina folk duo, augmented by a rhythm section, drew a large crowd for its hourlong set. Mandolin Orange went for subtlety, slowly building around somber picking patterns with appealing string interplay. On the touching “Wildfire,” honest, homemade vocal harmonies conjured images of log cabins and windswept plateaus.
Elsewhere, Baxter was suffering from a pinched nerve in his spine that caused numbness in his fretting hand. Still he persevered doggedly through his set at the Rooster Stage. His band drew casual appeal with its Bob Dylan stylings and earthy tones. Baxter’s songs alternated between heartfelt dedications and raw jams, including the popular “Olivia” and a slick number called “Bad Things.”
Meat Puppets made an appearance at the Swan Stage, drawing from their deep catalog of punk- and psychedelic-infused country. The durable Arizona trio consisted of brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom. They zipped through speedy versions of “Plateau” and “Oh, Me,” classic desert stomps made famous by Nirvana. Also included in the set were reverb-drenched brain-melter “Seal Whales” and the sombrero-ready “Dusty Notes.” Bassist Cris Kirkwood looked relaxed onstage. Curt Kirkwood’s son Elmo joined on guitar, playing a sea-green Stratocaster with the rare painted headstock. Later, Curt and Elmo Kirkwood were spotted riding a golf cart on the vehicle path as Elmo good-naturedly heckled festival attendees.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, true to its name, once again provided an eclectic mix of familiar and fresh names. Joan Osborne, making her first appearance at Hardly Strictly, played mostly new material. During her final song, the 1995 smash “One Of Us” Osborne, who was performing in direct sunlight, passed out from heatstroke. Stirringly, the crowd finished the song for her. Osborne’s press agent affirmed later that “she’s OK.”
Meanwhile, at the more intimate Bandwagon Stage, Grammy Award-winning Flor de Toloache gave a gripping performance. Credited as the only all-female mariachi band in New York City, Flor de Toloache elicited huge applause from the thickly assembled crowd. Confident and highly synchronized, the band was led by incredible violinist and singer Mireya Ramos. The quintet also included ukulele, acoustic bass, and two trumpets. The interplay was fascinating and concise, a definite high point of the day.
The Porch Stage hosted several intriguing outliers. Portland, Oregon’s Y La Bamba, led by singer-songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza, played a spacey set that included infectious chanting and West-African-inspired percussive guitar leads. Both lead vocalists displayed arty tattoos, and the jazz-inflected drummer held it the groove behind a barrage of ethereal vocals sung in Spanish. Later at the same stage, Niger-based guitarist Mdou Moctar wore a lavender robe and played a white left-handed Stratocaster. Moctar was in the zone behind big shades as his band called forth the long inhospitable distances of the daunting Sahara. Hypnotic, pulsating drums rumbled alongside steady bass as Moctar lanced in erratically with hot bursts of crackling, distorted guitar chatter.
Kicking things off on the sunny Sunday was singer-songwriter Nikki Lane. Lane, fresh off a show in Lake Tahoe Saturday night, delivered slow-developing, hard-luck country tunes rooted firmly in the tradition of Nashville. She wore a cute cow-patterned skirt and sang in a clear voice laden with authenticity. Her band featured a praiseworthy pedal steel guitar player, a rarity on the West Coast. Her set ended with a rousing version of “Viva Las Vegas” that borrowed a melodic line from the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”
Other bright spots from early in the day included performances by the Grateful-Dead-centric Moonalice, New York funky kings Pimps of Joytime, and Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito.
Fantastic Negrito, the alter ego of Xavier Dphrepaulezz, led a snazzy-dressed band with passionate vocals and major-league trip guitar. His lean and mean funk group opened with “Bad Guy Necessity” and maneuvered through several swaggering juke joint slow jams. The flamboyant frontman then poured some love on the Bay Area, referring to the group of cities as “the greatest tribe ever.”
The people of the Bay Area showed up again for one of their most beloved and footprint-conscious festivals. Thousands of smiling people rubbed elbows and enjoyed friendly conversations with strangers. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concluded its 19th installment with a continued commitment to showcasing a versatile mix of consummate musicians, integral pop-stars, and future headliners.