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.
BEST HORN SOLO:
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.
MOST AMAZING SOUL SINGER OVER THE AGE OF 75:
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
BEST stage TO BE ON SUNDAY:
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!
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.
BEST SET BY A MUSICIAN WHO HAS WRITTEN MUSIC FOR OVER 8 PIXAR FILMS:
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.
MOST AVANT GARDE SET WHERE PEOPLE JUST GOT UP AND LEFT:
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.