Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2012

As probably all Twangville readers know by now, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an Americana music festival held the first weekend in October every year in San Francisco.  Here’s my review, followed by Chip’s.


This year there were 88 bands, on 6 stages, for 3 days, all for free, courtesy of the late Warren Hellman.  (There better be a special place in heaven for that man.)  Chip and I, and 500,000 of our closest friends, made it to Golden Gate Park to catch at least part of the show.  Here’s what caught my attention on Saturday.

Warren Hellman

After strategically placing a chair in the Rooster Stage area I went over to catch the opener at Arrow Stage, The Trishas.  Along the way, though, I was sonically hi-jacked by the World Famous Headliners.  The Trishas were everything they’re cracked up to be, but the wide open spaces of the park weren’t particularly suited to their subtle, acoustic harmonies.  Meanwhile, as Mayer noted in his AMA review, the boys from Nashville really know how to bring it.

From there I detoured over to see Red Baraat, and a meadow full of people already up and dancing barely past noon.  There’s something about the neo-Balkan sound that always gets the Hardly Strictly crowd up and going early, whether it was Red Baraat this year, Elvis Perkins, in ’10, Galactic on ’09, or Gogol Bordello in ’08.

Next I hiked up to the Porch Stage to see Sara Watkins.  Her new album is a gem (reviewed here) and her stage charisma makes a live performance just as good.  Her band, including brother Sean, rounds out the package and this is someone to see again in a more cozy local venue.  Then it was back to the Banjo Stage to catch a few tunes from Alison Brown, who followed the World Famous Headliners.  From there I went over to Rooster Stage to see Guy Clark & Vernon Thompson with guest Shawn Camp.

I finally settled down a bit in my strategically-placed-chair to hear The Lumineers.  The hipster in-the-know crowd was ready for the group and the Colorado-based band complied with a fantastic set, complete with a Blue Angels fly-over, courtesy of the nearby Fleet Week festivities.  I finished out my day with a solid set from the Cowboy Junkies, thankful that the sunshine and California vibe kept my crowd angst in check.


The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is one of the premier music festivals in the US, and it is free. The Bay Area Philanthropist who founded the festival passed away this year, but he has endowed the festival to ensure that it continues and is free to fans for the foreseeable future. The festival was more “Hardly Strictly” than Bluegrass, but you would be hard pressed to find a better lineup of Americana acts anywhere. I was only able to go on Saturday, but here is a rundown on some of the acts I was able to see:

The Trishas – They are a great up and coming female trio. Their vocal harmonies were studio quality. Most of the songs they played were covers of their favorite Austin artists. Their cover of Guy Clark’s “She ain’t Going Nowhere” was mesmerizing.

Justin Townes Earle – This was my first opportunity to see JTE live. I look forward to seeing him again sometime. He performed a mellow set with tight arrangements. His vocals were crisp, seemingly hitting every note with perfection. He is a modern day crooner extraordinaire.

The Lumineers – The crowd was predictably oppressive for their set. People were literally hanging from trees. However, their performance was as big as the crowd. They took advantage and got the crowd involved with a lot of traditional “call and response”. By that I mean it was interactive rather than the crowd just singing along, as is common in Rock shows. They came across like veterans of large festival type venues.

Jerry Jeff Walker – What is there to say about Jerry Jeff live. His songs are classic and the crowd knows them all. He simply got on stage and reminded everyone that a festival is supposed to be fun above all else. It was especially cool when Todd Snider joined him on stage. Snider recently did a tribute album to Walker and their chemistry was great. In the end, the crowd was having so much fun they wouldn’t let him go without an encore. Encores are often frowned on by festival organizers who are overly concerned with the stage schedule, but the cult of Jerry Jeff would not be denied.

Flatlanders – It is obvious these guys have been playing together for a while. Each one are great individual performer, but they are also great together. Their balance of individual personalities within a group is hard to pull off, but they do it by letting each member play to his strengths. No egos just an amazing live set.



About the author:  Support new music. Listen to a band or singer you've never heard of this week. I've been doing that for over 30 years.

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