October 8, 2007
Banjo player Warren Hellman may have thought he tucked away on the schedule the performance by his bluegrass group the Wronglers early Sunday morning with the dew still on the grass at the Porch Stage of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, but several hundred supporters - "fans" might be a little strong - showed up to cheer on the festival's benefactor.
His guest guitarist, Ron Thomason of the professional bluegrass outfit Dry Branch Fire Squad, told the audience how tough Hellman was, training for his horse-riding hobby while recovering from a broken leg.
"That just shows you what sort of person turns to the banjo," Thomason said. "And at the end of this thing, someone's gotta say, 'check, please.' "
The partisan crowd rained a standing ovation on the seated Hellman, who conducted himself more like a reject from "Hee-Haw" than a financier, joking and telling stories on himself. "This is simple music," he told the crowd, "played by complicated people."
From the opening Friday afternoon performance by Nashville guitarist Buddy Miller to the traditional finale by Emmylou Harris late Sunday afternoon 52 hours later - after 72 acts appeared on the five stages, after most of the festival artists stayed up all night Saturday playing music at a private cast party, after dozens of festival artists made appearances at other festival artists' shows - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass No. 7 goes down in the books as another miraculous weekend, a gift from country music's most beloved amateur banjo player to the city where he lives.
Police told Slim's and Great American Music Hall general manager Dawn Holliday, producer of the sprawling event, that they thought more than 500,000 people filled the entire west end of the park from 25th Avenue out.
With each year, Hellman's million-dollar bash embeds itself more deeply into the San Francisco cultural calendar. Inevitably paired with Fleet Week - with the Blue Angel Jets buzzing the concert site - Hardly Strictly has become an annual community celebration of simple but profound values.
With the festival stretched over three meadows and five sites along John F. Kennedy Drive - Lindley, Speedway and Marx Meadows - festivalgoers thronged the roadway moving from stage to stage. Dogs and children were everywhere.
"This is Jack Casady on bass - he's played here before," said guitarist G.E. Smith of Moonalice introducing the Jefferson Airplane bassist as the band thundered into a revamped "Somebody to Love."
His Airplane and Hot Tuna bandmate, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, was also on hand, playing gentle, deft versions of country blues on the Rooster Stage in Marx Meadow, where the program was largely devoted to acoustic singer-songwriter type performers. The annual Songwriter Circle - this year featuring Ray Wylie Hubbard, Chris Smither, David Olney and Steve Young - is always a Rooster Stage highlight.
On the Banjo Stage, traditional country holds sway, like banjo great Earl Scruggs or Doc Watson, the 84-year-old blind guitarist from Deep Gap, N.C. Mandolinist David Grisman brought out Curly Seckler, a veteran of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, who did a song he recalled having heard sung by Charlie Monroe, Bill Monroe's older brother.
On Saturday, a parade of authentic bluegrass musicians crossed the Banjo Stage. The New Lost City Ramblers, a group crucial in bringing traditional music out of the hills, made one of its infrequent reunions, this filmed for a documentary being made about the 50-year-old bluegrass band. The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, out of the Smokey Mountains, featured the spunky vocals of washtub bassist Janice Birchfield, a short, rotund, red-headed spitfire.
Ricky Skaggs, Nashville's leading neotraditionalist, joined forces with sometime Grateful Dead sideman Bruce Hornsby for a rousing collaboration based on their recently released duo bluegrass album, followed by Gillian Welch and Steve Earle, two regular members of the Hardly Strictly lineup.
An all-Lone Star bill ran down the meadow on the Arrow Stage, with Texas troubadours James McMurtry and Jimmy LaFave sharing the stage with the Flatlanders, a hard-rocking collaboration between songwriters Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, made all the more so when joined for the occasion by the king of twang, guitarist Bill Kirchen. T Bone Burnett returned from his triumphant Friday appearance with guest John Mellencamp to put on his own rock show to end the Arrow's day.
On the Star Stage, John Prine pulled a huge crowd down the road, while Nick Lowe played a marvelously assured, low-key solo acoustic set across the street at the Rooster Stage. With Hardly Strictly produced by his nightclub operation at Slim's and the Great American Music Hall, Boz Scaggs has wanted to join the proceedings for years. After many rehearsals and a warm-up show Thursday at the Music Hall, Scaggs accounted for himself admirably, of course. Wearing straw hat and blue jeans, he mined his Texas youth for a set of old Hank Williams and George Jones tunes backed by a band that included the stellar Buddy Miller on guitar and the amazing Jon Cleary on keyboards.
Los Lobos brought the afternoon to a close as shadows fell across the Star Stage with the band's trademark mariachi rock, following a sensational set of modern bluegrass instrumentals by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.