The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is a 3 day free music festival nestled into the heart of Golden Gate park in San Francisco, California. The festival was started in 2001 by venture capitalist Warren Hellman. This year was the first year back since it was shut down due to the pandemic. This festival is as much about the attendee’s than about the music. While yes, the music is what draws us every year but, if you are a people watcher you are in the right place. From hipsters to hippies, from kids to grandparents, not only does it draw attendees from all ages and socio-economic groups, they also bring their dogs. When I was talking with another photographer there, he said his assignment was to cover the dogs of Hardly Strictly. I, however, was there to cover the music.
Hardly Strictly is broken up into 6 stages (Tower of Gold, Swan, Rooster, Bandwagon, Banjo and the Porch). Between the Tower of Gold and the Porch stage was almost a mile uphill. I and many others, definitely got our workouts done that day.
Aoife O’Donovan up first on the Porch stage. This Grammy award winning singer songwriter brought her version of of folk and Americana to the stage to an eagerly growing crowd. What a way to kick off day three of this festival. Her soothing vocals and acoustic sounds made the walk up the hill worth it.
Next up was the Wreckless Strangers. They have a pretty impressive pedigree of musicians including former members of Poor Man’s Whiskey, Elvis Costello and the Jones Gang. They rocked through their set with their blend of music they call “California Americana Soul.”
The next stop was the Rooster stage and Arooj Aftab. This trio playing neo-sufi and jazz, brought the world music flavor to the event. Their sound was very interesting and has me wanting to do a deep dive into their music.
About half way through their set, I made the trek down to Swan stage to catch Moonalice. Moonalice featured Lester Chambers (The Chambers Brothers), his son Dylan, Roger McNamee and a cast of others. Their psychedelic soul sound was a real hit with the multi-generational crowd. My personal favorite was “Time Has Come Today”, the Chambers brothers classic.
Next, I headed up the hill to the Banjo stage for Fare Thee Well. Fare Thee Well was a star filled tribute to the singer/songwriters that have passed over the last few years such as John Prine, David Olney, Nancy Bechtle and more. Featured artists involved were the Hellman Sisters, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Elvis Costello.
Back over at the Rooster stage, I caught one of my favorite artists, not just here but always. Dave Alvin was with Jimmie Dale Gilmore today with the Guilty Ones. Dave Alvin ALWAYS puts on a good show with his version of Americana music and the addition of Jimmy Dale Gilmore made it that much better.
Then back down to the Swan stage to catch Bela Fleck and His Bluegrass Heart. On the way down to the stage, I ran into the Venice Beach icon, Harry Perry. Man, everyone was here! Bela Fleck did an awesome set of traditional bluegrass and a few …….. non-traditional ones. The park was really filling up at this point and getting to the stage was a feat in and unto it’s self. But, I made it.
The next stop was the easiest one of the day. I just had to walk around to the backside of the stage since the Tower of gold stage backed up to the Swan stage. Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons) performed as a “solo” artist here. I say “solo” because he was there with a backing band, just not with the Mumford and Sons band. The first two and a half songs were acoustic but the second half of the third song exploded and so did the fans.
One last trek up the hill, back to the Banjo stage to see the legend, Emmylou Harris. When she walks on stage, she does it with style and grace. Even if you are new to her music, you can’t help but be drawn in with her story telling and musical prose.
As I was heading down the hill, I decided to pop over to the Rooster stage and catch the Tallest Man on Earth. Well, he wasn’t the tallest but, he was probably the most energetic. Changing guitars each song, he literally assaulted each one. At one point, he pulled out the banjo and told the story of learning about bluegrass in Sweden at the library and the daunting task of finding a banjo there.
Finally, it was time to hit the merch booth, grab a t-shirt and make my way to the exit. All in all, I saw 10 bands in 8 hours and covered almost 8 miles. I saw many of my retuning favorites and became a fan of many others. Hardly Strictly is always an impressive event and a must attend every year for Bay Area residents. This festival is so special that people that have moved away, still flock back to San Francisco just to attend.
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Photographer of about 10 years, I have been shooting concerts for about 8 of those years. I started to get serious about concert photography about 6 or 7 years ago and now try to shoot as many as I can. I shoot mostly rock but, have done some country and big band stuff. I love music and since I am nowhere close to being a musician, this is a way I can be a small part of what, in the words of Henry Rollins, “gets me through the highs, the lows and everything in between”.