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.
BEST SONG WRITER IN THE SPIRIT OF WOODY GUTHRIE
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.
BEST TRUMPET SOLO
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.
BEST FIDDLE PLAYER WHO MAY HAVE DROPPED ACID FIVE MINUTES BEFORE THE DOWNBEAT
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.
BEST BAND OF REALLY TALENTED MUSICIANS
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.
WORST BAND OF THE FESTIVAL (OR “HOW DID THEY GET THIS GIG?”)
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!
BEST LOOKING SAX PLAYER WITH A COWBOY HAT ON
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 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
REALLY STUPID RULE THAT WILL BE THE DOWNFALL OF THE FESTIVAL
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.