Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Returns to SF: Day One (Ft. Karl The Fog)

The beloved, days-long San Francisco music festival has returned to the city — and with it comes the understanding that this outdoor concert series remains in a class all of its own.

The first thing that hit me at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was how old most of the crowd was, and I think it’s as much because the artists skew older as because once you get to a certain age, you realize spending money on a festival ticket usually isn’t worth it. When you buy tickets to a festival like Outside Lands or Portola or Coachella, the experience of the show becomes as much about justifying the expense of the ticket as about the music, and past a certain price point, it just isn’t worth it.

I covered Outside Lands for The Bold Italic and had a fantastic time, but I suspect that’s only because they got me in for free and I didn’t have to live with the fact that I was getting fleeced.

If a festival is really nothing more than a field to do drugs in with a bunch of people, it feels obscene that anyone would pay for Outside Lands when there’s a free festival two months later in the same place with much more interesting artists — and it lets you bring beer in. You can even bring your dog, and there were acres of dogs at Hardly Strictly. Of course, Hardly Strictly skews much more towards roots music than OSL and doesn’t seem concerned with researching the acts that most teens are most likely to see. But isn’t seeing Post Malone or Weezer more about checking off a box than expanding your mind with the possibilities of music? The best music the world has to offer probably won’t be found at Outside Lands, but it might turn up at Hardly Strictly.

Asleep at the Wheel. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

The audience filed into the sound of Bob Schneider, whose beach-bum funk was the last thing I wanted to hear the first thing in the morning; I could say the same about the Rainbow Girls, a grating local trio whose four-chord relatables dream of approaching the depth and poignancy of KC Green’s “This Is Fine” comic. I’m glad I convinced my friends to ditch the Rainbow Girls and mosey over to Asleep At The Wheel. I can’t tell you what a purifying experience it was to step into Hellman Hollow where they played at the Banjo Stage.

Allison Russell closeup. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

The depth of their arrangements, the way they filled the meadow without seeming to make very much noise at all, the way they tore through “Hot Rod Lincoln” while imitating the engine of the titular vehicle, and the sirens of the cops who pull it over—Asleep at the Wheel have been at it for 50 years, and it shows.

I figured I might as well see some bluegrass at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, so I stuck around the Banjo Stage for New Grass Revival mandolinist Sam Bush before slinking off to the Swan Stage for Allison Russell, an awesome roots singer-songwriter whose mournful compositions reminded me weirdly of the Belgian prog-rock band Univers Zero. The last act I saw was Drive-By Truckers, whom I mostly knew from my friend Nathan Stevens’ relentless championing of former member Jason Isbell’s solo work.

Crowd for Drive-By Truckers with low fog. (Photo: Courtesy of author)

I wasn’t familiar with the Truckers’ music until now, and they’re the kind of band where it’s probably better to know their catalog before you go see them live. Like Springsteen’s, their songs are earnest, verbose, and mean a lot to a lot of people, so it’s best to get to the level where you’ve memorized every song so you can tearfully sing along with every word. I was nowhere near that level. Luckily, the festival is free, and better yet, the Truckers are a kick-ass band, blurring the communal mass of guitars familiar from Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd into a steady stream of heavy, atmospheric rock. I can see where bands like Diarrhea Planet and Sheer Mag get their mojo from. I will make a point to familiarize myself with their work in the next few days.

When the festival opened, the sun beat down so relentlessly I was tempted to not even wear a T-shirt and just go in the ratty vest whose purpose in my life is primarily to provide pockets for me to keep my weed in. I’m so glad I didn’t do that — around 3 p.m., the fog made its way inland and brought the chill with it, and both T-shirt and vest seemed inadequate. As I write this, the fog is thick over the Richmond district, and I plan on leaving the house with adequate layers. But knowing my luck, the sun will soon emerge, and I’ll be reduced to carrying my layers in my arms like a baby. You’re always either overdressed or underdressed in San Francisco.

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