For its second festival day of 2022, San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert series gave us everything we ever wanted — and then some.
Imagine being Elvis Costello. You’ve got a body of work that’s touched the hearts—or perhaps more accurately the bile — of millions. Your first three albums are stone-cold classics, and even your weird experiments in middle age, like the bluegrass album or the album with the Roots, have their own fervent cults. And on the strength of that work, you can stand onstage at Hardly Strictly, play maybe three or four of your own songs, fill your set with off-key and haphazardly strummed Grateful Dead and Neil Young covers, and watch thousands of spectators eat it up. “I know you love me,” the 68-year-old caterwauled towards the end of his Hardly Strictly set. Everybody cheered.
Costello’s encyclopedic knowledge of pop music means he can turn into pretty much anything, and for Hardly Strictly it seemed he’d chosen to cosplay as the spirit of the festival itself. Coming off a Friday night Great American Music Hall set of songs written by the great Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter in collaboration with Jerry Garcia, he devoted about half his set to those, and it was funny seeing a man once associated with punk and new wave’s rejection of ‘70s rock excess perform songs by the band more associated with those excesses than any other (except perhaps Pink Floyd—and I’d much rather hear Costello sing “Sugaree” than “Comfortably Numb”).
Costello’s set was packed cheek to jowl, including by people who didn’t seem sure who this cantankerous little man was (“is he Australian?” asked one spectator) but knew he was a big deal. While the previous day was comparatively calm and quiet owing to a truncated schedule and lack of major headliners, Saturday was the day when Hardly Strictly Bluegrass started to look a little more like Outside Lands—minus, of course, the $500-dollar tickets, advertising, and teens on molly. Crowds are the worst part of any festival, and it was only thanks to quick strategizing on the part of my crew of friends that the journey from Costello’s set at the Towers of Gold stage to Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew’s set at the immediately-adjacent Swan Stage took less than ten minutes.
Jerry Harrison was a keyboardist and guitarist in Talking Heads, collaborating with the former King Crimson guitarist whose slippery leads were all over the Heads’ Remain In Light. (Alas, there was no trace of Nona Hendryx, the amazing Labelle singer whose voice haunts the record.) Remain In Light is probably the greatest funk album ever made by a rock band, and though I don’t usually like full-album sets (why go to a show to hear something you could hear at home while not surrounded by thousands of strangers?), Remain In Light is so mercilessly funky that I was excited to get down to it.
That they didn’t really play the album was both a strength and a weakness. There were plenty of surprises, like King Crimson’s “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” to keep things fresh. There were also Heads crowd-pleasers like “Psycho Killer” and “Life During Wartime,” which are great songs but which sort of desanctified the idea of a Remain In Light set. Part of the appeal of Remain In Light is that only one of its songs is over-familiar from classic rock airplay, though admittedly “Once In A Lifetime” is a hard song to get sick of. It felt slightly crass to hear Harrison and co. intersperse tough, arty, uncompromising songs like “Born Under Punches” with songs I used to play at Blue Bear Classic Rock Camp.
Saturday wasn’t all about the stars. I was a bit disappointed by Antibalas, the Afrobeat orchestra who I’d seen more than a decade ago at Outside Lands; they’ve got grooves up the wazoo, but their hokey lyrics had nowhere to hide. Waxahatchee writes wonderful songs and dresses like an elven cult, but the people behind the soundboards seemed unsure how to mic a rock power trio, and their music was scarcely able to fill Hellman Hollow the way Asleep at the Wheel did on Friday. The best early set I caught was from Larry Campbell, the tireless session musician who performed with his wife Teresa Williams at the Rooster Stage before going over to Towers of Gold to play with Costello. It was a modest set—good songs, sung and played well—but sometimes that’s all you need.