Free music festival Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returns to Golden Gate Park

Ketki Samel/Staff

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For the 17th year in a row, San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival filled an uncharacteristically sunny Golden Gate Park with throngs of excited music fans and the stylings of more than 90 performers over the three-day festival.

Though the completely free festival’s roots are strictly bluegrass, the lineup has come to include an increasingly diverse array of music genres. Musicians ranged from festival regulars Gillian Welch, Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris to punk icons Henry Rollins of Black Flag and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys. Other notable performers this year included British songwriter Billy Bragg, Seun Kuti (son of the late Nigerian music star and activist Fela Kuti) & Egypt 80, Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit and Australian indie folk-pop artist Courtney Barnett with singer-songwriter Kurt Vile.

In addition to the musically diverse lineup, the event featured a silent disco, a host of DJs and a featured performance by students of Ruth Asawa School of the Arts World Music and Dance Department. The student performance was part of Hardly Strictly’s ongoing project to bring music education to San Francisco’s public schools. The festival’s most recent collaboration with San Francisco Unified School District is launching this fall with more performances, and the introduction of curriculum on Appalachia and American music traditions to eighth graders studying American history.

As usual, the festival drew thousands of fans throughout the weekend. If you weren’t part of the crowd, check out some highlights from what you missed (and plan ahead for next year)!

Katie O’Connor

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 — Friday

Everything about Seun Kuti & Egypt 80’s set was filled with friction that electrified the stage and consumed the audience. Donning a matching blue feather-patterned shirt-and-pant combo, Kuti stepped on stage with an exuberant energy that prepped the crowd for the show to come.

He opened his set with a song by his father, late Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti, sweetly commenting that he did this as a sign of respect. He then revealed the title, “Expensive Shit.” This fun opposition was emblematic of a show that meshed trumpet, saxophone and drums with Kuti’s spirited vocals in a simultaneously cataclysmic and peaceful way.

The polyphonic texture of the sound was emphasized by the audience, your typical honky-tonk crowd, dancing to the Nigerian music with moves that almost mimicked Kuti’s exuberant female backup dancer.

“African Dreams” slowed things down with calmer beats and a softer sound. Kuti started on saxophone, trailing gentle notes into the air, allowing the crowd to relax with the tune.

The show finished with a jolt as Kuti engaged with his bandmates and impressed the audience with his funky moves. Enthralled in the frenetic heat of the music, the instruments swooning together, Kuti pulled his shirt off, amusing everyone. This song simmered smoothly to a close, tying up the powerful, jubilant set, sending the crowd into grateful applause.

Maisy Menzies

Conor Oberst — Friday

The chattery audience fell silent as Conor Oberst, followed by a single accordion player, took his place at the mic. Speechlessly, he began his first song, lulling the crowd into soft sways as he picked the strings of his guitar and sang “Lenders in the Temple” with his sunglasses on.

Though the rest of his show featured a full band, the ambience of that first number was not forgotten. Each song had the presence of that nostalgic, emotional feeling from his opener. The shrill echo of his voice quivered with each word and he looked as though he might break down in tears any second.

Watching Oberst strum his classic folk style songs of heartbreak and hard times as an afternoon sun shined brightly down on the festival, known for its upbeat vibe, seemed somewhat inappropriate. Perhaps this is why Oberst’s cool set was the closer for Friday night.

As sunset began to crept in, Oberst welcomed First Aid Kit to sing Bright Eye’s classic “Lua,” a sweet tune that brightened the stage. The harmonies of his scratchy voice with the smooth voices of First Aid Kit melted together, showing how folk music can be both isolating and comforting at the same time.

Before the final song, Oberst commented on the death of his hero Tom Petty and the devastating Las Vegas shooting. He reminded his audience that people need music and community to survive, inviting all the performers from the day on stage to help close the show. As many voices crooned “Walls” by Tom Petty, it felt like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was the warmest place in the world.

Maisy Menzies

The Brothers Comatose — Saturday

The Brothers Comatose opened Hardly Strictly on Saturday morning, squeezing their set in between back-to-back Friday and Saturday night shows at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The festival’s usuals — dads, deadheads and dogs alike — sleepily ambled through Golden Gate Park, settling their tapestries and tarps down as guitarist/vocalist Ben Morrison tested a couple opening chords. Then, The Brothers Comatose filled the park with rich sound as they opened with “Knoxville Foxhole,” a track off the band’s 2016 album City Painted Gold.

While the crowd and band both took a moment to wake up, fiddler Philip Brezina’s bright intensity and precise riffs were the set’s immediate source of energy. From “Trippin’ On Down” to “Pie for Breakfast” and the band’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie,” the set was packed with smooth vocals, twanging harmonies, rhythmic bass-slappin’ and tight mandolin solos that gave the crowd what it expected: the familiar vibrant sound of The Brothers Comatose. But Brezina’s fiddling was what drove the band forward, wordlessly compelling the initially sitting crowd to get up and get rowdy.

As the band closed with “The Scout,” everyone who had lazily moseyed in 45 minutes earlier was out of their seats, jumping and belting the tune’s last lyrics over and over again – “I’ll never grow old, I’ll never grow old. I’ll never grow old and mean!”

Claralyse Palmer

The Wood Brothers — Saturday

Guitarist/vocalist Oliver Wood eased the crowd into The Wood Brothers’ Saturday afternoon set with his raw blues guitar bends and sustained, effortless melodies on “Trouble in Mind.” As his brother, Chris Wood, threaded distorted basslines through Oliver’s vocals, the audience began to dip their toes into the treat of hearing every instrument and vocal croon.

The brothers continued to take it slow for the opening bars of “Tried and Tempted” before deftly hitting a funky, upbeat syncopation that elicited lots hip swings and calls from the crowd. Multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix got into the rising groove with tight, tasteful drum licks and it became clear that the band wouldn’t be slowing back down.

For the next half hour, The Wood Brothers wove disparate rhythms and refrains together into one flowing unit of cadenced soul. Oliver belted his hauntingly rich vocals, especially pulling at the crowd’s heartstrings on “Keep Me Around” and “American Heartache.” Rix seamlessly executed percussion fills, holding back when necessary and letting loose with punchy drum solos between songs. Chris’ fingers flew up and down the bridge of his bass as dynamic riffs flowed from his grooving figure. The only time the bassist took a break was to treat the audience to his jaw-droppingly smooth dance moves, his body fluidly boogieing across the stage like a slinky snake as he emulated the title animal in “Snake Eyes.” And after a series of improvised riffs during “One More Day,” Chris lead the band in ending their set by dancing right off the stage.

Claralyse Palmer

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