Concert Review: Sunday at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

The Swanson Family Band
The Swanson Family Band
The Swanson Family Band

Justin Townes Earle
Zakir Hussein, Bela Fleck, and Edgar Meyer
Devil Makes Three
The Swanson Family Band
October 2, 2010
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Better than: Smuggling vodka into Outside Lands.

“This is so much better than Outside Lands!” a girl squealed Sunday after exiting a line of porta potties. And indeed, the enthusiasm for free music, shorter bathroom lines, brown-bagged bottles of booze, and an all-around bare-footed freedom lasted throughout the weekend this year at Hardly Strictly. With a vibe that often felt more like a street fair, throngs of people found their way to Golden Gate Park one more time on another unusually sunny day in the avenues.

Nor-Cal favorites the Devil Makes Three, one of the highlights of the day, belted out time-honored tunes like “Beneath the Piano,” as well as songs from their latest album, Do Wrong Right. A large crowd of women in feather headbands and shirtless men with glistening chests hopped around to the danceable folk tunes. The same rollicking enthusiasm found at any of the group’s frequent Bay Area shows was also obvious at this performance, and fans jumped over sunbathers and beer bottles for a front-and-center view of the stage.

Across Speedway Meadow at the Banjo Stage, people sitting on blankets and hanging from trees were captivated by unlikely collaborators Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Zakir Hussain. In the group’s first San Francisco performance since a cancelled show back in 2010, the banjo master, double-bassist, and Indian tabla player churned out a set of genre-bending tunes from their album, The Melody of Rhythm. The banjo is being integrated more and more into popular music, and Bela Fleck’s melodic banjo playing, as opposed to the popular Scruggs-style banjo, allows for easy incorporation into a variety of genres. The performance on Sunday — with Meyers’ bluesy double-bass, Hussain’s masterful Indian tabla, and Fleck’s sharp Banjo stylings — allowed for a set delivered with harmonic fluidity.

Gospel Hall of Fame legends the Blind Boys of Alabama took the stage after Fleck, Meyer, and Hussain. The crowd easily adapted to a swift genre-change, bobbing up and down like a set of freshly blown bubbles. “Are you happy?” lead singer Jimmy Carter asked the crowd. And the answer from the standing delighted crowd was a resounding “yes.” One of the highlights included a performance of “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of “the House of the Rising Sun,” solidifying the fact that after 40 years, this legendary group of Grammy-winners still has it.

Warren Hellman (you know, that awesome billionaire guy who pays for this entire festival just because he likes bluegrass), introduced the Swanson Family Band over on the often-neglected Porch stage. This is always the place to be for “strictly bluegrass,” with smaller crowds and intimate performances by lesser-known (but no less talented) folk acts. Hellman, in a sport coat and blue baseball cap, spoke of his admiration for the band briefly before taking a seat stage-right and watching the performance. The Swanson Family Band, is just that — a family — and a very strictly bluegrass family to be sure. With mom on guitar, dad on double-bass, and the rest of the kids on fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, the group’s set provided a masterful performance for a smaller crowd of bluegrass enthusiasts.

Over on the Rooster Stage, things were a little off-rhythm. While it was never quite obvious who couldn’t keep up, Justin Townes Earle’s hardy country vocals and cinematic lyrics were somewhat lost in his bandmates’ performance. The highlight of the set was when Earle played solo. His cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “My Starter Won’t Start” was a welcome return to the basics, highlighting the raw talent that has pulled the singer-songwriter out of his dad’s shadow. Earle even brought dad onstage for the last song of his set. A bearded Steve Earle and friends of the band lucky enough to have a coveted Friends and Family Pass joined for “Harlem River Blues.” The tune, a dark but catchy gospel-inspired tune often featured on Bloodshot Records samplers, again did not live up to Earle’s solo performance.

While strictly bluegrass goddess Emmylou Harris was crooning away at the Banjo stage, hardly bluegrass Brit-rockers Gomez finished out the evening at the Towers of Gold Stage. Fans sung along to lyrics from a set filled with lots of songs from latest album A New Tide. The songs on the record were made to be performed, and the audience’s enthusiasm must have paralleled the enjoyment of Emmylou fans across the park. As the wind picked up and everyone began to realize that this freakish Los Angeles weather was not going to last, Gomez fans slipped jackets over sundresses and danced on dusty blankets as the sun went down.

Critic’s Notebook

Quote of the day: ” I’ve come to realize that all men are liars and all women are thieves.”-Justin Townes Earle. Huh?

Personal bias: The Devil Makes Three always put on a great show, but every time there’s a group of smelly guys jumping around in circles.

See the rest of the article in SF Weekly .