As is the case with years past, The Pelican Café gives out awards for the Best of Hardly Strictly. It is a great honor to have been chosen once again for this task.
BEST FIDDLE PLAYER
Joe Spivey with The Time Jumpers Featuring Vince Gill, Kenny Sears, Dawn Sears and Ranger Doug Green
Joe Spivey played some great fiddle on the Banjo Stage during this set on Saturday and for me it came at a perfect time. I had just had an earful of Deltron 3030 with The 3030 Orchestra at the Gold Stage (what a disaster that show was, especially in terms of sound) and needed to hear something down-home. There is something beautiful about bluegrass fiddle when played well. It combines speed, a singing sound and when done well a lot of funky polyrhythms. Joe Spivey has probably been delivering on this and more for years. He sounded great.
BEST SINGER THAT MADE YOU WONDER “HOW CAN ANYONE SING LIKE THAT AND NOT LOSE THEIR VOICE
St. Paul w/ St. Paul & The Broken Bones
If you like in-your-face, soulful, Aretha Franklin southern Gospel singing, St. Paul is your ticket. He can simply belt out tunes, one after the other like there is no tomorrow. His stage presence, in a dapper blue suit and entertaining banter was perfect for his throwback style. If you are a singer or study voice, you must check out this guy. He does not take prisoners.
BEST BAND PERIOD, NOT IF AND OR BUTS
Jon Batiste and Stay Human
I must confess that I have a weakness for music from New Orleans. There is a beautiful combination of elements – spontaneity, virtuosity, soul, community, creativity and an artist to audience communication that transcends other music’s. Jon Batiste and Stay Human show at the 2014 HARDLY STRICTLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL was outstanding. It all started with just the drummer coming out on stage playing just a tambourine in a very funky style. He was then joined, one at a time, by other members of the band. Alto sax, then tuba then Jon Batiste on a trumpet looking melodica. They played in a very traditional but polyphonic style. The set was full of surprises. For many tunes they would get behind there instruments, Jon at the piano, the drummer at his kit and just make magic. Funky numbers. Traditional tunes. At one time the sax player picked up a curved soprano and played a tune that harkened back to Sidney Bechet. Other times they would break into a sort of modern jazz, free-jazz thing that would make Ornette Coleman smile, then in the next moment they played a corny 70s tune, Killing Me Softly with just horns. The ensemble playing was impeccable. They closed out the set by heading out to the crowd in a line, playing their instruments, marching band, second line style. Pure magic.
BEST SURPRISE BAND THAT YOU NEVER HEARD OF THAT REALLY SOUNDED GREAT
The Lone Bellow
From Brooklyn, New York, The Lone Bellow’s set at the 2014 HARDLY STRICTLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL just made you wonder were this alt-country band will be in a few years. Fine guitar playing and really impressive, authentic vocals by the entire group. Kanene Donehey Pipkin (mandolin, vocals) can really sing this stuff. As group singing goes, The Lone Bellow was amazing. Strong. On pitch. Well rehearsed.
BEST CANADIAN BAND WHERE OVER HALF THEIR SONGS SOUNDED LIKE DON MCCLEAN’S “AMERICAN PIE”
I suppose of you like that sort of formulaic 70s pop tune sound with the predictable hooks and uneven singing this would be your band, but they could have thrown in a “drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry.”
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival always takes place the first weekend of October in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In 2014, the weather was superb, with clear skies both days. Unlike some years, it was actually a bit too hot for some people and at many stages people sat far away preferring the shade of the trees. Ocean Beach had a long period swell running, sixty degree water temperatures and east winds so the surf was good. The Giants were in the process of defeating the Washington Nationals in playoff baseball. On Saturday, the festival was not as crowded as usual as the baseball game was in the afternoon. That game lasted six and a half hours and was won by the Giants in the 18th inning on a Brandon Belt home run. Life is good in the Bay Area.
Next year I think I am going to hang out a bit further west at HSB. Closer to the old time stages and the music from Appalachia. Ralph Stanley, winner of a 2013 HARDLY STRICTLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL OFFICIAL PELICAN CAFÉ AWARD played the Banjo Stage on Sunday but I was already parked with my family at the Star Stage listening to Rosanne Cash. The difficult choices we have to make this time of year.