Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Fest, Eclectic and Vital

Steve Earle, Dukes of September Rhythm Revue and Joan Baez anchor huge, free annual festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park

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“It’s a cool thing, a community,” says Steve Earle about San Francisco’s annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, where he has been a fixture for its ten-year existence. “You never know quite what’s gonna happen until you get here.”

That’s the Texas-raised, New York-based country-rocker’s perspective on SF’s massive three-day festival held in Golden Gate Park as one of its most regular participants.

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“He’s my favorite capitalist,” Earle admits.

Last year’s attendance was officially estimated to be 800,000, although that doesn’t include fans who returned multiple times (and, as Earle puts it, “You can never trust the police’s numbers about anything”). This weekend the vibe remained low-key and loving, as indie fans mixed with hippies, kids, and dogs. The bands were highly eclectic, as well: Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton appeared with his orchestral Italian pop cover band Mondo Cane on Sunday evening, while Sharon Jones sang with her funk-soul band, the Dap-Kings, on a nearby stage. The proximity of so much free music made for unexpected moments of pleasure: Bluegrass group Blue Highway sang an achingly beautiful a cappella ballad that could be heard by fans en route to see Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice, the Rilo Kiley frontwoman and her singer-songwriter paramour, who emphasized the engaging harmonies in their cranked-up garage-rock. Their Friday afternoon set featured a surprise appearance by a typically natty Elvis Costello, who did a duet with Lewis on “Carpetbaggers,” before returning Sunday night with his Americana-styled Sugarcanes.

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Jenny and Johnny’ were followed by T Bone Burnett and Punch Brothers, a bluegrass quintet featuring a particularly lively and virtuosic mandolin player, Chris Thile. Burnett, clad in a suit, recited the Dada-esque lyrics of “Zombieland” from behind shades as the Brothers (actually unrelated ) played, then introduced the Secret Sisters, a Carter Family-esque — and very much related — Alabama duo.

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At the same time Friday evening, Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs filled a much larger stage with their Dukes of September Rhythm Revue. The band brought impeccable chops: When they launched into Scaggs’ disco-pop classic “Lowdown,” the groove was as close to the original’s lush mid-Seventies sound as could have been possible in a live outdoor setting. This particular combination of talents meant that one could hear McDonald’s distinctive background vocals on the Fagen-fronted “Peg,” just like on the 1977 Steely Dan recording. Even better was “Something in the Air,” the 1969 countercultural anthem by Thunderclap Newman that still, today, sounds like the greatest John Lennon never wrote. The band gave the track a full-on Sgt. Pepper-style arrangement, complete with ragtime piano break and climactic horns, as the three front men split vocal duties. It was completely unanticipated and yet so right for Golden Gate Park, the nexus of so much San Francisco peace and love.

Saturday’s entertainment was decidedly more somber. Folk legend Joan Baez sang solo for several songs that afternoon, then gradually built up her arrangements. Of course, the best-received songs were by or about Baez’s early Sixties lover Bob Dylan — her 1975 hit “Diamonds & Rust,” as well as covers of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” which brought her set to a close with a spot-on impersonation of Dylan’s voice. Conor Oberst maintained the Dylan vibe: Joined by the Felice Brothers, indie-folkies who played their own set Sunday morning, the Bright Eyes leader offered multiple protracted musical climaxes that emphasized his intensity. Even in a free festival, the guy remains admirably passionate.

Passion was the link between Oberst and subsequent Saturday performers Richard Thompson, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Steve Earle. Although his affect was cool, English folk-rocker Thompson generated much musical heat on a damp and chilly day; his complex, melodic guitar solos were particularly fiery. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Will Oldham, gave this year’s festival one of its most unconventionally charismatic performances: His achingly sincere Louisville, Kentucky-accented tenor contrasted sharply with his engagingly awkward pirouettes, sweeping hand gestures that showed off painted fingernails, and other thespian quirks that kept the audience guessing. Is he serious/kidding/insane/high, or some constantly shifting, inspired combination?

There were no such theatrics from Earle. “As you probably figured out, we’re more Hardly than Strictly this year,” he quipped halfway through his loose but enjoyable Saturday evening set, his first gig with a rock band in five years. He harmonized with wife Alison Moorer, sang early hits like “Guitar Town,” and spoke to the day’s largest crowd about immigration, sobriety, and other issues that inform his songwriting.

“You think this festival would be complete and total chaos, but I think it draws the best behaved audience I’ve ever come across,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s a lot of music out there for free, and its endowed to go on for 15 years after Warren Hellman is gone — but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down that I can detect.”