Bluegrass festival is hardly formal, strictly celebratory of genre

Taylor A. Vega/Staff

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Low’s slow-churning melodies and haunting harmonies were the antithesis of the warm, jovial midday sun they accompanied Friday on Arrow stage. The three-piece based in Duluth, Minn., brought the cold of its hometown to the city, interrupting its icy melancholy every so often with striking vocal arrangements that would thaw away the frost of its still-poignant tunes.

With a majority of the crowd sitting idly and enjoying the weather, the Sub Pop veterans brought a precision and attention to detail to their performance that some of the audience unfortunately could not fully appreciate. Despite the somewhat lackluster impatience of the spectators at first, Low won them over progressively with a consideration for volume dynamics that few at the festival could match.

This is where husband-and-wife vocal duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker thrive; their chemistry impressed not only vocally but instrumentally as well. The band is one of the few remaining that feels comfortably entrenched in the early ’90s glory days of fellow indie idols like Mazzy Star, even harkening back to the sauntering shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine.

Songs like the existential “Plastic Cup” burst from their muted verse portions as the two’s harmonies kicked in, prompting many to oblige as echoes of “you could always count on your friends to get you high” filled Hellman Hollow. Low certainly did not demand attention, but the quiet confidence of the group’s performance commanded it.

Loudon Wainwright

Stepping onto Rooster stage Saturday, a casual Loudon Wainwright III, donning denim shorts and a baseball jersey, was met by an equally casual 3 o’clock crowd. The area around Rooster stage, one of the smaller stages at the festival, was hard to maneuver in by the time Wainwright began his roughly hourlong set: Blankets and chairs covered nearly all available space on the ground, and a smoky haze covered everything else.

Known for the confessional and diarylike quality of his songwriting, the 67-year-old, Grammy-winning Wainwright kept it personal Saturday; most of the songs he played were about family, which is also the subject of his latest album, Older Than My Old Man Now. Reminiscent of a couple of tracks from his newest album that feature spoken word over rhythmic vamping, Wainwright told stories between songs, mostly about his family.

Although his subject matter and delivery were heartfelt, Wainwright’s performance lacked excitement. The extended periods of talking between songs took away from the set’s momentum and created an informal, living-roomlike atmosphere bordering on boring. Even those in the first row found no reason to get out of their lawn chairs. To exacerbate the problem, it was hard for a lot of people to hear anything at all. Those on the large slope to the right of the stage — which probably included nearly half of the audience — could barely hear the sound of Wainwright’s guitar, let alone his voice.

Wainwright’s personal and casual approach would have been better received in a more intimate setting. As it was, he had a hard time capturing the interest of his obliviously chattering audience.

Father John Misty

As the afternoon came to a close and the sun began to shine through the trees of Golden Gate Park at Arrow stage, ex-Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman, who performs under the moniker Father John Misty, took to the stage shielded by a giant iPhone cutout. The theatrics were clearly a commentary on one of the modern musician’s greatest grievances: the cellphone camera. Whether irked by the technological barriers between performers and their audience or simply teasing his fans with an onstage gag, the ever-quirky Father John Misty did not address the prop — nor did he have to.

Tillman, alone and armed with only a guitar, some reverb and his angelic vocal chords, put all of the quickly growing crowd at Hellman Hollow into a trance with cuts from his debut as Father John Misty, Fear Fun, stopping only momentarily to take a jab at Giants fans and professional sports team allegiances after a dreamy rendition of “Only Son of the Ladiesman.”

Compared to his SUPERB-sponsored Lower Sproul performance last year with an incredibly talented backing band, Tillman’s show at Hardly Strictly was a significant departure, marked by a focus on the singer’s most obvious talent: his voice. Although the twanging live guitars of “I’m Writing A Novel” were certainly missed, the slower version was a welcome alternative, even garnering some laughs from the audience with its ridiculous and caustic lyrics.

Long-haired and bespectacled with Ray-Bans, Tillman fit right in with his audience and fellow performers at the festival. His surprisingly raw set felt like a deliberate step away from the intricately coordinated live musicianship of his old Seattle-based project; the bare-bones setup of the stage and arrangements were unexpectedly pleasant in a day otherwise lined with banjo fills and stand-up bass. Tillman also took the liberty of letting loose a small host of new, unrecognizable material for longtime fans awaiting new Misty material.

Musicianship aside, the conversation and excitement surrounding the performance were undoubtedly signs of Tillman’s growing stock in the indie music mainstream. Taking the stage after indie heavyweights and fellow Sub Pop signees Low, the condition of the grass went from bad to worse as a mass migration of fans — many already quite inebriated by this point — stormed the Hollow to watch the Father preach.

“I’ll just call this what it is, my vanity gone wild with my crisis,” admitted the guilty Tillman as he strummed the final chords of “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” while still staring out into the audience from the painfully apt giant phone cutout as they pointed their phones back at him. Tillman’s performance was not filled with the glamour and shine of the cellular device he was mocking, but its simplicity and immediacy made it one of the most powerful of the weekend.