Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2023 

Words and photos by Kristopher Weiss on October 28, 2023
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2023 

Decisions, decisions. 

More than 70 acts on six stages over three days of music mandated much decision-making at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Who to skip? When to peel off to catch part of another gig? And when to sit tight?

The Sept. 29-Oct. 1 festival inside San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park offered a full menu of musical entrees both of the bluegrass (Mighty Poplar) and Hardly Strictly (Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit) varieties. And the Travelin’ McCourys encapsulated the gathering’s ethos entirely when they performed “Scarlet Begonias,” replete with a triple-time coda, in the tree-shrouded public space the Grateful Dead played so many times in the first decade of their existence.

“Seems appropriate,” Ronnie McCoury said as the song wrapped.

We missed the aforementioned Poplar and Isbell in favor of Emmylou Harris and Tommy Emmanuel, respectively, but managed to see all or parts of more than 25 sets beginning Rickie Lee Jones’ wildly entertaining festival-opening reading from her 2021 memoir “Last Chance Texaco” before 100 or so diehards on the tiny Horseshoe Hill stage – she also performed one of HSB’s premiere musical sets with Vilray on guitar for thousands on Saturday at Banjo – and Harris’ closing gig on Sunday evening. Her wistful songs added bitter to Hardly Strictly’s sweetness as she sung such numbers as “Pancho and Lefty,” “Hickory Wind” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” to a field packed full of fans.

Jones’ musical turn began with a radical rearrangement of “Danny’s All-Star Joint” that was more New Orleanian than San Franciscan and danced and emoted her way through a set that found her crooning and playing guitar, banjo and piano. In doing so, she offered her debut performance of “I Won’t Grow Up,” sated the faithful with “Last Chance Texaco” and “We Belong Together” and lifted her orange sweater to reveal a “Rickie Lee T-shirt” on her sinewy cover of Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids.”

In between Jones and Harris were a staggering variety of musical offerings that found Christone “Kingfish” Ingram redefining the blues at Towers of Gold; John Craigie earning his spot next to the likes of Todd Snider in alt-country at Swan; Valerie June, also on Swan, refining and defining whatever her genre of one actually is; and Emmanuel on Arrow establishing how powerful a solo-acoustic performance can be before a quiet-except-for-gasping-in-disbelief audience. This was a jarring juxtaposition to similar presentations from Steve Earle and Rufus Wainwright, whose sets were disrupted by folks who felt the music was interrupting their very-important conversations. 

The only thing as diverse as the music was the weather. It was at turns cool and foggy for Peter Rowan – who played electric guitar and mandolin and opted mostly for country and blues during a stellar late-Friday-afternoon performance at Banjo – to hot and bright for Layla McCalla, who seemingly conjured the return of summer when the skies miraculously cleared during “I Knew I Could Fly” as she sang the words, “My face to the sun” during her Saturday-afternoon set at Towers of Gold.

A Hardly Strictly tradition, the Dry Branch Fire Squad played a Saturday-morning set of songs straight from the holler and had the audience easily shaking off any remaining sleepies from the previous evening. This was a day that also featured a handful of mini-sets from the McCrary Sisters, who brought Sunday a day early with their effervescent readings of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” “Amazing Grace” and other songs of hope and faith in community and the greater us, leading into the country of Brennan Leigh and the soul of Bettye LaVette.

The latter sauntered on stage in the mid-afternoon sunshine and opened with her grinding rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed.” From there, Layette turned to her recent LaVette! LP. And as she stalked the stage, played air keys and air guitar and delivered the songs in her singular rasp, LaVette proved 77 years have done nothing to diminish her vocal prowess and stage presence. In fact, they have may enhanced them.

Young women also highlighted the festival as Sierra Hull and her band kicked off Sunday morning with a set of bluegrass-with-drums music so beguiling, a hummingbird spent a large chunk of the show hovering around the Banjo stage as if it knew something special was going on there. 

Eilen Jewell then lit up the Swan with songs from her recent Gypsy and Get Behind the Wheel LPs that found a big portion of the audience on its feet and moving to her special blend of twangy country-rock. When the set was capped with a note-perfect rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” the response was such that Jewell could’ve easily gotten away with performing the festival’s only encore.

Sadly, she did not perform the festival’s only encore.

The most life-affirming moment took place back at Horseshoe Hill, where Mitch Greenhill, who played one of Doc Watson’s guitars, Nora Brown and Stephanie Coleman with guest slots from Andrew Marlin, June and Jon Langford, who played a set at Swan, celebrated the 100th anniversary of Watson’s birth with an intimate performance of such songs as “Summertime,” “Handsome Molly” and “Tom Dooley.” And it all ended with the glorious experience of a couple hundred people singing “Keep on the Sunny Side” under a canopy of tall trees and low fog in a far-off corner of Golden Gate. 

An earlier Watson tribute set had featured Harris singing “Old Friends” with Shawn Camp and Verlan Thompson over on the Rooster.

At 82, Irma Thomas played the festival’s most-rambunctious gig, setting the Rooster stage on fire with a mashup of of “I Done Got Over It” -> “Iko Iko” -> “Hey Pocky Way” -> “I Done Got Over It” that is likely still wafting through the trees of Golden Gate. The audience danced and shook their white handkerchiefs in the air as Thomas seemed nearly as excited as the thousands who gathered to hear her bring New Orleans to San Francisco. 

Jerry Douglas, too, forsook Bluegrass for Hardly Strictly, offering a set of Dobro-focused blues, jazz and rock on the Swan, where Hermanos Gutiérrez and Vetiver had previously served up helpings of instrumental guitar-duo and Byrdian folk-rock music, respectively.