Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Recap: Day 3 (Ft. No Fog)

On its final day, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass wrapped up with a phenomenal set of DJs and group acts — and there was no fog to be seen.

For all the pride I take in my openness to different genres and approaches, one conservative thread lingers from my days as a classic-rock kid: I like to see technical skill when I see an artist or a band perform. DJs and rappers tend to bore me live, because what they’re doing in most cases is essentially hosting a party with their own music on a big sound system, and I prefer parties where I can actually hear over the music and talk to people. And I don’t much care for bands that can’t play; indie rock’s cult of amateurism exalts ethos at the expense of music. Of course, devoting the time and energy to an instrument required to master it is a steep challenge even when you don’t have to worry about things like paying rent. But when I see an artist on a big stage, there’s a part of me that hopes they played their way to that stage.

The first three artists I saw at Outside Lands all appealed to that part of my brain. In lieu of the great Afro-Caribbean funk band Cymande, who’d canceled their set along with their North American tour, I found a singer named Danielle Ponder, whom I’d never heard of but who tore through Southern-style soul songs with such brio and maturity that I was not surprised to find she’d only gotten big in her 30s. Her massive hair, flowing garb, and ability to conjure such searing and shocking sounds in real-time with her voice reminded me of the exhilaration I found watching Summer of Soul, last year’s documentary about the Harlem Cultural Arts Festival in 1969, which gave me an overwhelming impression of talent, hunger, ambition, and artistic freedom. I can’t say I remember Danielle Ponder’s songs well, and her choice to cover Radiohead’s deliberately childish “Creep” seemed at odds with her projection of poise and maturity. (“Reckoner” or “Pyramid Song” might have been a more appropriate choice.) Yet the feeling of exhilaration I felt after her set was the kind that comes only from seeing something aspirational.

I elected to stay at the Swan Stage after Ponder, listen to the talented harmony group Lucius perform from the adjacent Towers of Gold stage, and get a front-row spot for Béla Fleck, one of the most revered bluegrass banjo players of all time. Bluegrass is not a genre with which I’m terrifically familiar, having borne a long-standing grudge against it after taking a volunteer gig in college collecting door money for the worst bluegrass band of all time. Ten years later, it seems like the perfect fit for my sensibilities: it encourages technical excellence but seems as much about the players having fun, it’s challenging and experimental music but is also fundamentally entertaining. Certainly these were all true of Fleck’s set with his My Bluegrass Heart band. It wasn’t just Fleck’s effortlessness, the way his eyes wandered elsewhere as his hands twisted themselves into fantastic shapes across the body of his gorgeous black-and-gold banjo, the way he surrounded himself with equally formidable players—it was the way unexpected and seemingly spontaneous musical decisions could push the crowd to new levels of excitement, the way music that rivaled prog in its complexity could fuel a party.

After Fleck I made my way to the Bandwagon stage, which I was disappointed I hadn’t visited yet. Delightfully, Bandwagon is a real wagon, a cute little trailer with a stage parked in front of its open doors, and it was perfect for Yasmin Williams, a solo acoustic guitarist who seemed to tower above the crowd even while seated on a stage no more than three feet tall. Williams is one of the most idiosyncratic and inventive artists in the crowded field of solo guitar music, attaching a small kalimba to her instrument and using her knuckles to beat a rhythm on the side of the guitar in between complicated runs tapped out high on the instrument’s neck. Her amiable stage presence and frequent references to her time at NYU (“you need clout to make friends there”) reminded the audience that she’s still only in her mid-20s. So did a cover of Post Malone’s still-wonderful, Swae Lee-featuring Into The Spider-Verse theme song “Sunflower.” It almost felt like a joke at Outside Lands’ expense, even though it’s a staple of her live repertoire.

Emmylou Harris traditionally closes the festival. Alone out of the artists I saw on Sunday, she’s not what I would consider a “virtuoso.” Her voice is cracked and twangy in a way desirable in country, and it’s better for it—she sounds like a ghostly wind blowing through a canyon, and her set was perfectly timed with the sunset so it seemed like she was bringing in the darkness. Like Saturday’s set from Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Emmylou’s set succeeded simply because she was a great singer singing great songs with names like “Making Believe” and “Together Again.” I was surprised, though, how few people came to see her. The meadow was emptier than it’d been even on Friday in mid-afternoon. Maybe knowing she’ll be back again next year, as she promised before leaving the stage, made fewer people committed to seeing her set. Maybe everyone was off seeing Marcus Mumford, he of the Sons, at Towers of Gold. Or maybe she just doesn’t have much sway among a younger crowd, though I can assure you that if you like Big Thief, you’ll love Emmylou’s album Wrecking Ball. But hey: at least I didn’t have to cut through too many crowds to get out of the festival

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