2023 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival SF Journal Awards

The 2023 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park was  the last weekend of September – Sep 29, 2023 – Oct 1, 2023. My buddy Steve from Atlanta was in town and we went all three days, listened to a lot of bands, and had a blast. When you look over the schedule, you notice right away that it will be a tyranny of choices. So many bands. So little time. We did not even make it to a few of the stages this year, choosing to stay at good front row spots at some of our favorite stages. The new Horseshoe Hill Stage looked like fun but we never made it there.

In 2023 the weather was generally cool and partly cloudy with light winds out of the west.. Often October has some of the best surf, but during the HSB 2023 weekend the swell was a bit mixed up, large and funky and only for the totally committed surf community who seem to get out there and rip on just about anything.  Each day in the mornings you could see the marine layer out at sea ready to come ashore in the afternoon.

Without further ado,  here are the 2023 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival SF Journal Awards.

– Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

It was a gas to listen to this young blues guitar player, just taking the music to another level – B.B King would be proud. Kingfish and the band brought some very funky grooves and it was awesome how the keyboard player would add some substitutions and extended and altered chords at tasty moments.  At one point Kingfish headed out to the audience and played an epic solo walking through the crowd.


– Chuck Prophet

Even though Chuck Prophet has played HSB many times, he is getting the UP-AND-COMING ARTIST award only because it was the first time I have heard him play and he sounded great – definitely home field advantage on the Rooster Stage.  Chuck is getting the UP-AND-COMING ARTIST award because at 60 years old he is but a youngster when up against the likes of Bettye Lavette and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. With out a doubt the youngster Chuck is now surely getting hounded by AARP.

Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express

– Bettye Lavette

So many artists at HSB were born in the 1940s. To live a long life you surely have to laugh a little and Bettye is sassy as ever, a bit glib at times, can still dance and one of her fortes is humor. Halfway through her set Bettye announced that she may have contracted a new disease that is problematic for many called CRS, short for Can’t Remember Shit. While there may have been a few pauses in the set, no one knew the difference. Her band was very funky and she delivered a great show.

– “Second Time Around” – Rickie Lee Jones

I heard Rickie Lee Jones in New Orleans last year and she brought her horn section and brilliant arrangements (which she writes) . What was she going to do in Golden Gate Park? Will she do her hits from her youth? Will she sing stuff that she isn’t particularly known for? Will she make it on stage?  During Rickie Lee Jones’ set on the Banjo Stage it was obvious that she was going to sing her jazz tunes. When she sang “Second Time Around” by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen I wondered how many people even knew the song, but the entire meadow was pretty much transfixed.  Great tune. Great interpretation. You can hear Rickie’s version here.

– The Golden Retriever at the Banjo Staged

Just a chill dog that made you realize how sublime it must be to just stick out your  tongue, smell the air and feel the grass.

Chill dog

Until next year, that is the SF Journal 2023 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco is a little like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Big-name bands, many kinds of music and a festive atmosphere. One of the amazing things about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is that even though there are tens of thousands of people, it is always a  peaceful event, and in the end people seem to get along just fine and often make new friends. Everyone seems to pack out the trash pretty well too. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Warren Hellman’s party.  Communal music therapy.


2022 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival SF Journal Awards

The 2022 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park  was back to true form; there were so many bands that I lost count. Since COVID 19 hit the festival has been on hiatus save for the online streaming variety which I did not check out.  My buddy Steve from Atlanta was in town to take in the festival. We went all three days, listened to over twenty bands, and had a blast.

In 2022 the weather varied a lot.  The mornings on Friday and Saturday began clear but by 1 pm on both days the fog came in and the temperatures dropped significantly. No need for an artificial fog machine at HSB 2022, many times the stage and musicians were obscured by fog.  During the Drive By Truckers‘ set it began to look like a dystopian, gothic hallucination. Yes, that is the stage there in the fog.

Drive By Truckers' set at HSB 2022

Often October has some of the best surf, but during the HSB 2022 weekend that happen on only Saturday morning.. Saturday began with clear skies and long beautiful shoulder to head high waves. We did not venture into the waters this year but took in the waves as spectators along the Great Highway.

Without further ado,  here are the 2022 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival SF Journal Awards.

BEST BLUEGRASS BAND – AJ Lee and Blue Summit

AJ Lee and Blue Summit are a hard working band from nearby Santa Cruz that is often on tour, playing festivals and shows all around the world. It is awesome that they were invited to the 2022 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as often the festival overlooks some amazing local bands. Their set featured everyone in the band and the solos and breaks were first rate. A local treasure that people in the Bay Area would be wise to to check it, even if you do not like bluegrass. It is really hard not to like this band. You can go to this festival and it is entirely possible to avoid hearing any country or bluegrass bands. I ran into some friends later on who were walking  by the little Bandwagon Stage and were blown away by AJ Lee and Blue Summit. It’s bound to happen.

BEST GOSPHEL SET – DeShawn Hickman with Charlie Hunter

It is not very often that the musicians that hail from Berkeley, that grew up in the Jazz, Funk and Hip Hop scene get on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival bill, but Charlie Hunter arrived as the bassist with DeShawn Hickman. Since it was Sunday, they did an all-Gospel set and it was wonderful. Great pedal steel guitar,  nice singing by DeShawn’s sister and of course some solid  bass by Charlie Hunter.  Just take note, that Charlie Hunter is a first-rate jazz guitarist. This was at the Bandwagon Stage that is starting to become one of those best secret spots of the festival.


Elvis Costello was perhaps the most well-known name at the festival and the Gold Stage was completely packed during his set.  Just getting around up on the road felt a bit treacherous. When we finally met up with some friends and found a spot the sound was not so good. It was the kind of set that seemed to be more about being there than the music. Eventually Elvis played some of his classic hits and all was good. Alison, may aim is true.


Las Cafeteras is an LA band that to me was one of the big surprises. The energy they brought to their set was off the charts. Amazing costumes and high energy dance moves. The very direct, politically-charged lyrics speaking to various issues of social justice really worked in the San Francisco festival setting. A band to definitely experience live.

MOST AMAZING TRUMPET PLAYER – Eric Gordon with Galatic

We had an excellent spot for the Galactic set at the Swan Stage. On the same stage, that a few years back Terrance Blanchard played so well, the younger Eric Gordon simply blew the house down with his powerful, impeccable trumpet. The tradition of phenomenal trumpet players that come from New Orleans continues.

BEST BABY BOOMER SET – Jesse Colin Young

I never had any Jesse Colin Young albums when I was a kid but always liked his name and surely heard his music on the radio.  It is the name of either an 19th century bank robber, a Supreme Court justice or  an unstoppable NFL halfback. Due to the cancellation of Cymande, I made the trek over to the Porch Stage and caught the Jesse Colin Young set. His acoustic guitar with lots of reverb and soulful voice came together well. My neighbors close by let me know that many of his songs sounded nothing like the originals. Jesse’s house burned down in one of the recent fires and getting out playing may be a way to get back on his feet. He did play the classic Get Together that became a big hit while he was with The Youngbloods.

Love is but a song we sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why
Come on, people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now
Get Together


It is really great how many women were a part of the 2022 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  One of the more unusual groups was a stellar, gospel oriented mother, daughter group. There was no more hiding behind the mic on the harmony parts and singing was strong and true.

Until next year, that is the SF Journal 2022 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco is a little like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Big-name bands, many kinds of music and a festive atmosphere. One of the amazing things about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is that even though there are tens of thousands of people, it is always a  peaceful event, and in the end people seem to get along just fine and often make new friends. Everyone seems to pack out the trash pretty well too. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Warren Hellman’s party.  Communal music therapy.


Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2022 – Preview and Recommendations

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: A FREE gathering in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco featuring dozens of musical acts on 6 stages.

September 30 – October 2, 2022.


This link above is pretty much all you need to know about this music festival that goes back more than a decade, and is free and unusual.  The now deceased, banjo-playing billionaire Warren Hellman’s fortune keeps it all going and hires the bands and now extensive security. Thanks Warren! The music is an odd mix of genres but comes down to some country and bluegrass bands, old geezer, baby boomer bands, alternative rock and pop bands and a few local bands. For a young band, your way to get the gig is to be in the industry and a hard working touring band that has paid some dues, traveled many miles in a van and probably slept in a lot of Motel 6’s.

Whether you experience Hardly Strictly Bluegrass at one stage with a group of friends, a blanket, chardonnay and lots of stinky cheese and olives or want to catch a lot of stages, travel light and fly solo or with a like-minded buddy or partner in crime is your choice. I tend to go with the fly solo thing as there are so many bands it seems a shame to be tied down to one spot.

Here is my list of people I hope to hear, but as always things change and I may find myself eating brie with some strangers at a stage listening to someone I never knew that then becomes my new favorite band.



AJ Lee is a local band that most people in the Bay Area do not know, which is strange because they are really good.  Santa Cruz bluegrass at its best.


Country swing from West Texas. Nothing like some Dizzy Gillespie thrown in with your Hank Williams


Some Bayou sounds not to miss.


This looks like a really interesting band far from bluegrass.







It is always good to checkout the Bandwagon Stage were the local folk get up on stage. Not as crazy as the other big stages.

Remember to keep hydrated, pack a few extra snacks and maybe a few extra cans of quality beer for when you find yourself next to some other friendly festival goers .  See y’all on Monday.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2020 Awards Will Take a Break

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that takes place in Golden Gate Park every first-weekend in October is still happening this year, however it is going to be all online or what they now call “virtual.” Not my cup of tea folks. I like the real thing and will not be attending. That said, this year’s  SF Journal Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards will take a break.

As it turns out, live music festivals, with thousands of people bumping into each other, spilling beer on you and sharing local herbs is probably the best way to boost your immune system.  As an added bonus there is the perilous activity of attempting to hygienically go to the bathroom in a port-a-potty.  Wash your hands? Yeah right. Let’s all share germs!

For the past eight years I have written up reviews of  HSBG festivals and given out awards. If you are curious or simply getting nostalgic, they are listed below. Until next year hopefully, when the light of health, peace and sanity returns.

2019 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards

The 2019 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park took place under clear skies, gentle 3 foot surf and mostly light winds and warm temperatures. For the last few years, the festival no longer has the Arrow Stage but replaced it with a much smaller Bandwagon Stage. Not to worry, all the stages were packed with incredible lineups of working bands. I went for three days and saw a total of 17 shows. Here is the 2019 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival SF Journal Awards.

In the past, these awards where the “Pelican Cafe Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival  Awards,” but the Pelican Cafe got bought out by the San Francisco Journal, so the awards will take up this new moniker.

BEST SOLOIST – Adam MacDougall- Lebo and Friends

Adam MacDougall was playing the keys with Lebo and Friends Sunday on the Gold Stage. Behind what seemed to be about eight keyboards, Adam had command of each one. He would go back and forth between a Fender Rhodes and a Hammond B3 and then something else.  In a day when music is streamed endlessly and often becomes like wallpaper to people’s lives, Adam played solos from another era when really being able to play and having a distinct voice were the main objectives. Great solos with soul and chops.

SONG OF THE FESTIVAL – We Shall Overcome

Friday is probably the best day to go to the festival. Crowds are lighter and less rambunctious. The programming is less rock and roll and often a bit highbrow but always top-notch. During Bill Fisell’s set they did We Shall Overcome and sort of got the audience to sing along.  I then left and headed to the Banjo Stage where the Kronos Quartet did a tribute to Pete Seeger – Seeger at 100. Soon the Kronos Quartet did We Shall Overcome and this time the audience joined in with a bit more punch and participation. I forgot that Pete Seeger wrote so many  great songs. One that was sung was Where Have All the Flowers Gone.  It is an anti-war anthem that is timeless.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone
Pete Seeger

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago

Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young girls gone?
Long time ago

Where have all the young girls gone?
Taken husbands every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young men gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the young men gone?
Long time ago

Where have all the young men gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?


Somehow the word got out that Robert Plant was playing Saturday. The entire field by the Gold Stage was packed to capacity. Just getting up and down the hill was a strange exercise in physics. It was as if the entire area was some sort of new-found organism, thinking from some central command. You could sense a sort of claustrophobic anxiety in some people in the crowd. Fortunately, I made it to a good spot of the hill and was able to take in the entire set.  What a great band! The violin player was simply outstanding and a real powerhouse dancing and playing her fiddle with amazing sound and rhythm.

As the show went on people started jumping the newly installed fence that keep people off the back hill. In years past it was always good to take in a show from these hills where the eucalyptus grows. Though a bit far away, you can get your own space and often a very good view of the band.


Sometimes your best-laid plans just take a detour. This happens most the time when you are entering the festival.  Heading in Saturday we passed by the Swan Stage and were drawn to the sounds of  Poor Man’s Whiskey. Poor Man’s Whiskey has played HSB so many times you lose count. They are one of the few local area bands beside Laurie Lewis that seem to play the festival every year. What is so charming about Poor Man’s Whiskey at HSB is that they bring the A team to the gig. Their music goes back and forth between electrified Irish fiddle tunes played at break-neck speed,  like a group of 20 somethings on an all night bender, to original ballads that are played with subtlety. Raw Northern California energy. I once was a bluegrass festival and hanging around the campfire were a few people from Southern California. One of the guys had an observation – “Southern California is where they sell the music. In Northern California is where they play – up here they pick.” Poor Man’s Whiskey keeps that tradition alive.

BEST CHORUS OF ANY SONG – Jesus and Elvis by Hayes Carll

Jesus and Elvis

Jesus and Elivs
Painted on velvet
Hanging at the bar here every night
It’s good to be back again
Oh, me and my old friends
Beneath the neon cross and the string of Christmas lights

Another anti-war song that is picturesque and very clever in that country sort of way.


I am not sure how a mariachi band made it on the bill, but Flor De Toloache worked the Bandwagon Stage on Sunday. I was at a great set by Joan Osborne at the Rooster Stage where Joan eventually passed out with heat stroke. A good friend said that the all-woman band Flor De Toloache based in New York crammed the group on the tiny stage and played a great set.  In music festivals, with six stages, you cannot be two places at once.

BEST PICKERS – The Punch Brothers

I ended the festival at the Rooster Stage and heard the Punch Brothers. Every member of this quartet is simply outstanding. They redefine music and take it in directions that are new and original. You definitely had to be close up to hear this group as they play with a nuance, subtlety and ensemble that the SF Symphony only dreams about.


This year there was added security to the festival. National Rent-a-Fence surely made a lot of money fencing in the entire festival. This was a minor inconvenience but marked an end of an era where the festival had this magical pre-2001 vibe. Thankfully, there were no violent incidences. Perhaps instead of paying hundreds of extra policeman to stand around the festival, the festival could provide another water station out on the road by the Gold Stage. They had a water station at the Banjo Stage. It seems odd that that is the only one. In the hot sun you definitely need the hydration after all your beer and water runs out.

Until next year, that is the SF Journal 2019 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco is a little like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Big-name bands, many kinds of music and a festive atmosphere. One of the amazing things about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is that even though there are tens of thousands of people, it is always a  peaceful event, and in the end people seem to get along just fine and often make new friends. Everyone seems to pack out the trash pretty well too. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Warren Hellman’s party.  Communal music therapy.


2018 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards

It is again a great honor and privilege to be able to bestow many of the great musicians and participants of the 2018 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival with the prestigious Pelican Cafe Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards. We have been giving these awards out for at least the last five years, and this year the committee had a hard time agreeing on some of the winners. So many acts! So little time!

Usually early October in San Francisco has people dialed into a local professional baseball team as the playoff games often conflict with the festival, but not this time. By the time the festival began, the scrappy Oakland A’s had already lost a one game wildcard playoff game to the Yankees, so the baseball distraction was never to be.  The San Francisco Giants season was pretty much over by the All-Star game.

Instead, the mood was rather one of shock as the only score that seemed to matter was the game in the U.S. Senate – it was on many people’s minds.  Brett Kavanaugh, with a 50-48 vote was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and once again the voices of women were disregarded and ignored. The court now has added a very mediocre mind,  accused sexual molester and rapist, conservative partisan ideologue to the court and you can safely say that the “old boys network” is still in charge.  One can only hope that the midterm elections puts more woman and progressives in the upper echelons of government. I am not optimistic. We are an illiterate populous and our media is controlled in such a way that the narrative is often scripted by the wealthy plutocrats and truth is in short supply..

But to take a break from that madness and sorry state of affairs there is the 2018 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and what a great time it was.! Music is the best medicine.


I always begin the awards with a weather round up. The entire weekend during the festival experienced beautiful weather – sunny skies, and while the wind was strong out at the ocean from the northwest, it was actually not bad at the festival. In terms of surf, Friday morning before the wind came up was the best to be had. The waves were about 6-8 feet and really fun. After that, the wind picked up and it was all about the music.

Ocean Beach on Friday

BEST FESTIVAL DOG: The pleasant female pit bull hanging out on the main lawn at the banjo stage.

Talk about a chill dog and this dog was really fun to hang with. She just chilled on the lawn and nothing phased her at all.  People walking by practically stepping on her, strange smells, food dropping all over the place.  She was at the next blanket over and we enjoyed Dave Alvin, Mavis Staples and Allison Krauss together.  Why does Dave Alvin play blues harmonica in first position, I will never know but it did not even get a howl out of this pooch.

Favorite dog

BEST HORN SECTION: Booker T. and the three guys just nailing the classic tunes

The Booker T.  show on Sunday at the banjo stage was packed with talent. Lead singers nailing the classic R&B tunes. The horn section, seemingly a bunch of youngsters, were never introduced but these guys sounded great and  played with both power and dynamics. At festivals like this it is often the supporting characters that are what elevate the whole experience. The Booker T horn section was outstanding.

Booker T.


I was hanging out with friends on the Gold Stage when I heard this amazing trumpet player. Who could that be? Turned out it was Terrance Blanchard wailing away. I made a b-line to the Swan Stage and caught the set from the road which is a good perch to see what is really going on on stage. Then Bob Weir was invited into the jam and he sang a tune “Days Between.” Very cool!


Besides being a great harmonica player, Aki puts on a completely entertaining show. His style is what has been called Bollywood Blues and he sings these awesome songs in what I guess is in Hindi. He has the ability to lead a group, play and sing extremely well, communicate with the audience with joy and humor and keep every tune playing back to back just like Bob Wills did it with the Texas Playboys. His band often used the sitar. Talk about some cultural fusion! What is also cool about Aki’s approach is he really lets player take extensive solos.

Paul with Aki Kumar.

BEST BANJO PLAYER AWARD: Tim O’Brien’s Banjo Player

I actually did not hear too many banjo players. The banjo player with Tim O’Brien’s band did not bother me too much. He gets the award.

Tim Obrien

BEST WOMAN TRIO: The Wailin’ Jennys

There seems to be more and more woman trios out there, singing great harmonies and pickin’ some fine mando. The Wailin’ Jennys put on a great set at the Swan Stage. Really good three part harmonies with some modern touches. They did an a capella versions of Paul Simon’s Love Me Like a Rock that was awesome.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco is a little like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Big-name bands, many kinds of music and a festive atmosphere. One of the amazing things about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is that even though there are tens of thousands of people, it is always a  peaceful event, and in the end people seem to get along just fine and often make new friends. Everyone seems to pack out the trash pretty well too. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Warren Hellman’s party.  Communal music therapy.


2017 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Official Pelican Café Awards

The 2017 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was blessed with great festival weather – sunny and never too hot or too chilly and the winds never blew too hard. Out at the ocean there was a large short period swell in the water and moderate onshore winds in the afternoon so unlike some years in the past the surfing was not happening. Good thing there were over 100 bands and 6 stages to experience some great music. Coinciding with the festival were the Blue Angels flying maneuvers over the city of San Francisco. Sometimes a single jet would stall right above Golden Gate Park and then shoot like a rocket straight up only to then arch moments later with a big turn. Many oohed and aahed. Some who have seen the darker sides of war and reality and probably have been through this  routine before, looked to the sky with one-finger peace signs on both hands and sneers on their faces. The middle-aged woman M.C. at the new Victrola Stage just sighed and said something about if only we used all that money for the schools. Starting with Billy Bragg on Friday and going through many acts was a theme of political awareness and either concern for the state of things in the world or ways to contend with the fear and despair.

One of the ways was to simply enjoy all the music and friendly company. As you can see by the photo below, the festival began quite peacefully.

Stressful beginning. Victrola stage in background

Francisco Torres solo on Watermelon Man – Trombone

There are no trombones in bluegrass music  that is certain, but at the 2017 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival there were at least two. I heard more saxes, trumpets and trombones than I did banjos.  Both the banjo and the trombone have known to break up marriages as both are actually very hard to play. Francisco Torres plays trombone and plays it very well with Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz group. They played at 11:40 am on Saturday at the Swan Stage.  The crowd,  a bit subdued, seemed like they were either waiting for the coffee to kick in, the neighborhood blunt to take effect or maybe were simply biding time till “that cool band plays at 2:30.” Overall the band seemed a bit under-microphoned but Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz group band is full of veteran-pros and eventually you knew you would hear something great. I have heard Francisco Torres play trombone live before and was impressed. This guy has great chops and outstanding musical sensibilities and can even channel John Coltrane. His solo on Watermelon Man was outstanding.

Don Bryant

People who have been attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival for years know that part of the fun is discovering new musicians and bands.  On Friday I heard the The Bo-Keys. The horn section was fantastic playing with impeccable ensemble. The baritone sax had this beautiful fat sound and and held down the bottom like a anchor.  The arrangements were a little unimaginative but I am told that that is the classic R&B style (I guess Tower of Power never got that memo). Anyway, the second half of the set featured Don Bryant and let me tell you this guy is still going strong. Decked out in a gorgeous ornate black and silver jacket, at 75 he gave a clinic on singing R&B. He was channeling the voice of Otis Redding, James Brown and Sam Cooke all at once – all while having a  great time. The style of blues shouting has many casualties in the vocal world and I hear that people who sing in this style are often  frequent visitors to the  Ear, Nose and Throat clinics across the land. It is an especially difficult style to sing night after night. Don Bryant seemed like the Pavarotti of R&B  and for the entire set he  looked like he was having a gas. All the E.N.T. people should really just figure out how this guy does it. Case closed.

I would rather live a short life of love, than a long one of fear

Lucas Nelson

Swan Stage

There are basically two approaches to attending the festival. One is to pack light, stake out your spot on one stage then meander over to other stages. This way you can maximize your band count. I know many people who do this and I have come to the conclusion that if you choose this route it is best to go the the festival solo. Alone, you can head off and hear Allison Brown in a moment’s notice. The other approach is to simply bring enough food and drink for the day and stay at one stage that your party has chosen as the best. Sunday I was traveling solo but nevertheless ended up spending four hours at the Swan Stage around a very friendly crowd. For me, the line-up of Poor Man’s Whiskey, Randy Newman and Lucas Nelson (Willie Nelson’s son) was the highlight of the entire festival. Outstanding!

Most Improved:
Poor Man’s Whiskey

Speaking of which, Poor Man’s Whiskey’s set was excellent. I am not sure if there are new members in the band or they changed their beverage of choice but these guys brought it on – great vocals at times, awesome songwriting and some truly interesting guitar solos. Their sound is many things – a bit country, a bit rock and roll, a little Northern California jam-band. During the set one of the band’s members proposed marriage to his girlfriend. That was pretty special.

It’s play time now. There’s no democracy. Democracy’s gone.

Randy Newman

Randy Newman

When musicians become commercially successful sometimes people no longer take them seriously. Randy Newman’s body of work is outstanding. Sitting at a grand piano playing solo he quieted everyone down and truly delivered. He played some new songs (a funny one about Putin) but also played classics like Short People.

TIE: T-Bone Burnett & Ornette’s Prime Time Band Reunion

The Pelican Cafe has been giving out these awards for six years now and this is the first time that the judges have split their decisions. In the category of Most Avant Garde we have a tie! You had to have been there.  T-Bone Burnett did over an hour of a new direction he is going. Electronic music with prerecorded tracks, a drummer and T-Bone Burnett doing spoken word. There was some mention at the beginning of T.S. Elliot but at a festival like this, subtleties are lost.  Probably pretty cool stuff if you are in the right mood and a smaller venue. At a festival this size you need to paint with a fatter brush. Ornette’s Prime Time Reunion Band played many of the old tunes and sounded really interesting. There were loud like a rock and roll band.  I now am musing over what it would have sounded like if Ornette and Charlie Haden had done the gig as a duo.  Maybe they were up in the clouds flying around in those airplanes. Stranger things have happened lately.


The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco is really like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Big-name bands, many kinds of music and a festive atmosphere. One of the amazing things about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is that even though there are tens of thousands of people, it is always a  peaceful event, and in the end people seem to get along just fine and often make new friends. Everyone seems to pack out the trash pretty well too. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Warren Hellman’s party.  Communal music therapy.













The 2016 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Awards

It is with great pleasure that we were asked again to present The Pelican Cafe 2016 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Awards . So many great bands… so many stages. It is a world-class event still free to everyone.

As usual, I start this post with a brief assessment of the weather. The first week of October in San Francisco is usually the beginning of our “Indian Summer,” that two month period of time between the horrid fog of summer and the torrential rains of December, where we get some consistent sunlight and winds often blow out of the east. Surfers take to the ocean, as this time of year is when the waves are at their best. Last year during the festival was no exception, but this year during the The 2016 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival the northwest winds were already beginning to howl at around 9 am. Of course this made it so the entire weekend was not what surfers would call “rideable.” It also had another effect. On many of the stages facing west, the sound got literally blown away by the wind. It is not ideal to have these winds when putting on an outdoor festival.

The winds off Ocean Beach San Francisco on October 1, 2016
The winds off Ocean Beach San Francisco on October 1, 2016

People (all three of you), who follow this publication, know that every year I give out these precious awards to the deserving people and musicians. It is a lot of work narrowing down the selections, but I think I nailed it this time around.

Outstanding Billionaire of 2016:
Warren Hellman

It is easy when you attend a free festival to give thanks to the person paying for everything. In our winner-take-all economy, that guy is Warren Hellman, who now is somewhere six feet under and must accept this award posthumously. Unlike, one of the current presidential candidates, Warren Hellman actual had a passion for something other than himself. That was bluegrass music and the banjo, and he actually gave money back to the community. He spent his days as a banker and venture capitalist and somewhere along the way started the festival. He made so much money that he has funded The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival for a decade after his death in 2011. Mark your calendars. That would be 2021. Thanks Warren. The entire American Beverage Association and all the corner stores within a mile radius of Golden Gate Park really thank you.

Rebirth Brass Band
Chadrick Honore – Trumpet Player in Rebirth Brass Band

Outstanding Musician:
Chadrick Honore – Trumpet Player in Rebirth Brass Band

I took off work early on Friday as I simply had to go see the Rebirth Brass Band play at the Arrow Stage. The band, with a long tradition and many members over the years, is playing really well these days. The trumpet player Chadrick Honore was simply on fire and the way he plays trumpet makes it look effortless. As usual, New Orleans’ musicians are much more than just playing an instrument. Chadrick was singing and working the crowd as well. But, his playing was truly outstanding. It is curious that as time goes on with The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that there are more wind instruments and less banjos. I would wager there were fewer banjos this year than any of the last five. Perhaps the festival should be renamed The Hardly ANY Bluegrass Festival. But that is OK with me. Just bring on more bands from Louisiana.

This one needs to be replaced...
This one needs to be replaced…

Terrible Speaker that Needs to Be Replaced
Banjo Stage

With that Northwest winds howling and blowing the trees, I was wondering if that speaker about 100 yards down the meadow from the Banjo Stage was even on? Yes it was. But, let me tell you – it sounded like crap. Sometimes speakers like this just get old and fall apart inside.

Actually not a bad spot to see a show at the Rooster Stage. Jackson Browne, somewhere down there.
Actually not a bad spot to see a show at the Rooster Stage. Jackson Browne, somewhere down there.

Best Babyboomer Singing “Life Soundtrack Songs”
Jackson Browne

I have never been to a Jacksom Browne concert. Now I have. It was pretty good. He played a lot of his big hits, titles that I do not know but the melodies that have been ingrained in you somehow. He is a great singer-songwriter and I came to realize that what he really writes are simply hymns. Lots of IV to I. Lots of V SUS chords to I. All good. Not very bluesy at all. During one of his songs he got about 8 bars in and simply stopped. I have know idea if he suddenly forgot the words or the chords, but he just took a little pause and started it all over. I think half the audience didn’t even noticed. Performers take note.

Band that Never Made it Due to Flight Delays
Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie

With a name like that, how would you NOT want to go all the way across town and check it out. But alas, the flight was delayed and they missed the show.

During Curtis' set at the Arrow Stage
During Curtis’ set at the Arrow Stage

Amazing Special Treat of the Festival
Curtis Salgado

Man, can this guy sing and play harmonica. A really special musician who has been there through the years. It is truly strange that he was not listed on the schedule. Curtis is the “real deal.”

Strangest Aspect of the Festival
So few San Francisco Bands

In the early days of the festival, word has it that there were actual a fair amount of San Francisco bands on the stages. Not so much these days. Sure there are local musicians like Boz Scaggs, part of the booking, and locals who get the gig playing behind him, but I find it perplexing that the band Front Country, a really good bluegrass band from San Francisco, is not on one of the stages. There are many other great San Francisco bands people in the area do not even know. The closest thing this year, was the showcasing of the Little Village Foundation, a local non-profit that is doing some really good work. Diverse and very Northern Californian.

Anyway, I caught about 12 bands in total, a bit less than years past but it was about right. All of The Pelican Cafe 2016 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Awards are guaranteed for 30 days from this reading. After that you are on your own. Go out and hear some live music from the locals. Until 2017…

Past Years Winners

The Photos (Click on Images)

The 2015 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Awards

Once again, it is an honor and privilege to present the Pelican Cafe 2015 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Awards to some of the outstanding musicians and acts at the festival. This was probably the seventh Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that I have attended. The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival always takes place the first weekend of October in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In 2015, the weather was superb, with clear skies both days. By the afternoon on both days a moderate to strong west wind started blowing.It was nice to see the trees swaying in the breeze but the sound traveled away with the breeze as well. I went for a few acts on Friday and for most of both Saturday and Sunday. So much music. So many stages. There are always trade-offs and you cannot be two places at once. I missed a few shows I had circled but caught some great acts unexpectedly. This year I mostly listened from the grassy field at the Arrow Stage. Not too crowded and close to the little Band Wagon Stage were some of the real troubadours sing their songs. After flying solo on Friday and Saturday and meeting some real characters, Sunday was a grand party with my honey and some good friends. While Joe Jackson, Boz Scaggs and the Indigo Girls were all just grand playing their hits, it was the lesser known groups that to me really shined.


Tim Barry

Tim sang “Prosser’s Gabriel” for his album 28th & Stonewall and it was sung with such passion and honesty it really made my day. A man who seems on the edge, his song writing is excellent. His message to the crowd was “do something that scares you.” His passion for the moment came through.


Mike Olmos

Mike is a local trumpet player from the Bay Area and grew up in the East Bay. In years past I heard him play with Boz Scaggs and Jimmie Vaughan. His solos with the New Master Sounds were awesome as usual. Unfortunately, when the leader Eddie Roberts introduced Mike Olmos, the crowd sort of looked out vacantly off to the distance. San Francisco. A city with little clue as to the amazing quality of some of the local talent.


Nicky Sanders

Speaking of local talent, Nicky pretty much took over the last tune and man can he play! He is a showman in the tradition of Paganini and will quote some the great classical works in his solos, from symphonies to classical themes all in a very whimsical way. Originally from San Francisco he obviously had home field advantage and pulled out all the stops. Just simply off the charts.


Punch Brothers

Some things in life are just not fair. I had head the Punch Brothers a little here a little there. I left work early on Friday and biked to the festival. Starting the weekend with the Punch Brothers was awesome and they play with such amazing virtuosity and musicianship it is just breathtaking. The only problem was that after the Punch Brothers the only direction left to go musically was down. While every musician in the group is simply amazing, the banjo player was the one who really impressed me.


Michael Franti

I know a little of Michael Franti’s work from an early Spearhead album. It is an awesome album with some stellar Bay Area players adding to the over sound. Charlie Hunter. Some amazing singers. What happened? Franti’s work now is somewhere between a frozen yogurt commercial and a group therapy session at the YMCA. Audience participation is one thing but when that is the point of the show it all seems silly. At one point I began to think that it was to cover for the fact that Michael has a hard time finding the pitch. Someone get with that man and work with a strobe tuner!


Jay Reynolds

Jay was probably the only sax player at the entire event and there is something just sort of strange about a sax player wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I had always wanted to hear Asleep at the Wheel. It is such a strange sound that must be extremely regional. Country Swing, which sounds like 40s big band music but everyone is wearing cowboy hats and instead of trumpets and a sax section the sax, fiddles and a guitar play these tight arrangements like they know them in their sleep.

Ray BensonRay Benson backstage after the show

The leader of the band, Ray Benson was amazing. So relaxed it made me think I was hearing a Bing Crosby 45 record at 33 rpm. Man can that guy sing contra-bass. There is no award here for the lowest note sung at the festival, but Ray would win it by about two whole octaves.

Musician getting the boot



At one of the first festivals I attended, I heard a band called Fruition. Youngsters from Portland who were busking off to the side, behind one of the structures. They were really good, so good and real you kind of wondered why they were not on one of the stages. Probably next year, or in a few years they would make the Porch Stage or maybe the Arrow Stage you thought and then and you could reminisce about when you saw them in 2004 back behind the maintenance shed.

This year when I was leaving the festival, walking down the street, I saw a very traditional sounding bluegrass band being shut down by security. The band was simply playing as people left. The irony was that at the time all the stages were playing rock and roll and these fine young gentlemen were playing the tunes Warren Hellman would have played. It just seemed ironic and strange to be kicking fiddles and banjos out of a bluegrass festival.

While the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is world-class and amazingly free, you have to wonder why the kabash on people playing in the street. All great American music comes from the street. To not allow for this sort of expression seems strange, ignorant and antithetical to so much of the songs being sung inside the gates. Time for an area for the buskers. Time to water the seeds. I think a lot of people who go to the festival to hear bluegrass would be in agreement. After the Warren Hellman money runs out, that is what will be left.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Blue Rodeo

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.

2013 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Official Pelican Café Awards

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 for this task.


Ralph Stanley

Ralph can still belt it out and if you have not heard him sing, it is a truly American experience. Part Appalachia, part blues, part native Indian chants, it is a one of a kind thing. The Clinch Mountain Boys always deliver some solid traditional bluegrass.


Alison Brown

Alison sounded great and as the sun came out full-blast and I applied my second batch of sunscreen, the sus 4 chords just keep coming. Everyone knows that hanging out on sus 4 chords in Bluegrass is just strange. It is like mixing your sour mash whiskey with Dr. Pepper. Better just to drink it straight.


Richard Thompson

This guy played some heavy songs, with profound lyrics and delivered some totally out there guitar solos. I caught him later at the Rooster Stage playing a solo ballad. When the sound went out on his acoustic guitar, he did not skip a bit and borrowed yet another guitar and finished the last two verses.


Steve Earl

Speaking of singing ballads, Steve Earl at the Kate McGarrigle Tribute, sang one of Kate’s ballads, and pulled it off admirably. You could tell he was in unfamiliar waters, but rose to the occasion.


Nicki Bluhm

Just a breath of fresh air, great voice and a solid band.


Chris Wood of the Wood Brothers

Not too many harp players in bluegrass. It is a strange misunderstanding. Anyway the Wood brothers are a very interesting band. Maybe next time Chris should put down the bass and grab the harp with two hands. This year, I started to get into this band and strange combinations. It is easy to forget that all this music is just three people. Excellent vocals.


First Aid Kit

Can’t be everywhere…


The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival always takes place the first weekend of October in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Because of the season, you either experience a weekend of warm temperatures and offshore winds, in other words “Indian Summer,” or the end of summer, and the usual foggy cold. This year it was warm. The surf lined up to be shoulder high glassy things, and the sky was so clear, on Saturday morning from the dunes of Ocean Beach you could see far off to the distance along the coast to the north, the bluffs of Point Reyes.

Some people say I like this festival because I am cheap. Sure, one look at my car and you get the idea that this is a person who probably rinses out the end of the ketchup bottle in the spaghetti sauce. It is true, I tend to gravitate towards the simple pleasures, being a free festival, things become simple when it comes to money. But to take on a festival with over 100 bands, you got to have a strategy even if your strategy is to have no strategy. This year, after much searching for comrades, it turned out I was flying solo. Strange, I was unable to drag anyone from my family, anyone from my extended family, and not even a single soul from my rock and roll jam band world. Plans. Travel. Prior engagements. Camping-surf trips. No problem. How can you possibly miss this thing!

The strategy was to be simple. Surf in the morning. Hit the festival all day. See as many bands as possible. Pack supplies. Water, refreshments and binoculars.

So, Saturday, I awake to a sort of paradise, and proceed with my HSB schedule all marked up, West, to the ocean and the Golden Gate Park. The following day, after jamming in some undisclosed location in the Mission with the Beauty Operators, I simply repeated the formula. By the time my honey showed up for the final show on Sunday, I had seen over 13 bands, many for the first time. The only problem was that there were at least 25 more that I missed. Next year, weather permitting, all Friday afternoon at the Porch Stage hearing some folksy stuff. All Saturday and Sunday checking out acts I know nothing about. The weirder the names, the better.

2012 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Highlights

Last year I was in Tennessee at a wedding. This year I was able to check two days of the 2012 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. Unlike past years, I did not have any known friends who were doing early morning squatting, marking out terrain, so I would be flying solo, moving between stages and looking for good listening and viewing spots. I caught Saturday and Sunday afternoon shows. Overall, it seemed like the festival was extremely well attended and each day I ran into people who traveled to San Francisco specifically for the festival. Met some nice people from San Diego, LA and Denver.

For me the best show was DOUG SAHM’S PHANTOM PLAYBOYS featuring: dave ALVIN, steve EARLE, delbert McCLINTON, boz SCAGGS, jimmie VAUGHAN… and whoever the cat drags in.… The rhythm section was right in the pocket and the band played a lot of different grooves. It all seemed effortless. The horn section was outstanding. The guitar solos outstanding pieces of R&B soul. For this show, I listened by a tree, stage right and it turned out to be a great spot. You could see the band the acoustics were good. This show had great sound.

A few interesting acts I caught were “The Cowboy Junkies” who I had never heard of feature a decent harp player. I enjoyed the brooding lead female singer who was very different from some of the earlier acts I heard. I also caught Patti Smith whose music I did not know, but whose name is well known. She brought a decent young rock and roll band and her music has this powerful, self-empowering message. Very nice.

So much music. So little time. Another fine year at the 2012 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Next year, I really got to make it for Friday night too.