SAN FRANCISCO — The first weekend of October in San Francisco is synonymous with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The free music festival in Golden Gate Park has for 18 years been a haven for people of old ages—hardly strictly bluegrass music fans—to come early and snag prime real estate with blankets to see some of the biggest names in music of most types.
The month used to have two additional landmark events: the Bridge School Benefit Concert and the Treasure Island Music Festival. But Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the lone survivor now, and despite new security measures and a heavier police presence, thousands of people still came out to celebrate the occasion.
Security lines were short and hassle-free just after noon. The biggest change was how different the festival felt with fencing surrounding its perimeter—more formal and less serendipitous than in years past. Although festival organizers said coolers would not be allowed in, there were plenty to be found. Organizers seemed to walk the correct side of the fine line to maintain security without losing the free spirit at the heart of the festival.
Chuck Prophet opened up the first day on the Swan Stage with his terse electric guitar strains.
“It’s a bad year for rock and roll,” he said at one point during an introduction for the song of the same name, written for 2017, the year we lost David Bowie.
Over at Bill Frisell’s set, Petra Haden’s vocals were a soothing solace, along with Frisell’s delicate and emotional guitar playing. His music was best experienced with the ears and heart rather than the eyes. The melodies were easy to enjoy from any grassy spot among the hundreds of blanket-dwelling concertgoers in the hollow.
The Kronos Quartet’s performance was just as stirring. To celebrate what would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday, the FreshGrass Foundation commissioned the world-renowned string ensemble to create a performance in his honor. The quartet was stunning on its own, and it just got better and better as guest vocalist after guest vocalist joined it on stage.
“Where Have All The Flowers Gone” was a highlight, and the way the group introduced it hit hard: “Wonderful song. Sorry it still has meaning.”
The set finale had all the guest vocalists on stage, including the San Francisco Girls Chorus, to perform “We Shall Overcome.”
Country singer-songwriter Tanya Tucker—who wrote her first hit at 13 in 1972—was up next, and she cranked it up to 11 with a set filled with tangible electricity and humor on songs like “High Ridin’ Heroes” and “Mustang Ridge.”
Another profound moment came during Will Kimbrough’s performance of “Alabama (For Michael Donald).” Before he sang, Kimbrough spoke about the lynching of Michael Donald in 1981. Donald’s mother, who was from Kimbrough’s hometown, worked tirelessly to tell the story of her son’s unjust death.
The latter part of the afternoon included Grace Potter and J.S. Ondara singing for a live taping of “Live From Here” that will be broadcast on NPR this Sunday; soul rockers St. Paul and the Broken Bones; and the Milk Carton Kids.
The Bay Area is fortunate to have this free festival that creates such an eclectic and joyous spirit.