Review - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2023 @ Golden Gate Park (9/28-10/1/23)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

What a weekend it was in Golden Gate Park as the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival welcomed in October with three days full of music free for the San Francisco masses. Warren Hellman’s gift that will keep on giving was full of incredible entertainment of varied styles on six stages – not to mention the many after-events spread throughout the Bay Area in the weekend and surrounding days.

Covering Hardly Strictly requires many choices to be made (“Rufus Wainwright or Jason Isbell?” “Kurt Vile or Emmylou Harris?”). Festival organizers have done a great job of improving the flow of the masses through artist timing and better paths of travel. I’m still a little spooked by my memory of 2016’s Saturday crowd where for a not-so-brief-moment I thought I might be crushed to death traversing from Cyndi Lauper to Jackson Browne as people screamed and begged for relief. I remember saying to the person next to me “Of all the metal and punk shows, I’m going to die at Cyndi Lauper.” This year, there were still six stages and well over 100,000 people on hand, but it had none of the fear factor and even room for quite a few dogs. Still, I made a strategic decision that I would focus on the Swan and Towers of Gold Stage which were back-to-back and easy to get to without much hassle.

Orchestra Gold @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Orchestra Gold @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Friday kicked off on the Towers of Gold stage with Oakland’s Orchestra Gold – a band self-described as “African Psychedelic Rock” and led by energetic lead singer and head dancer Mariam Diakite. While the lyrics were delivered in the Malian’s native tongue, the music and rhythms were highly accessible. The band had held a similar spot at this year’s Mill Valley Music Festival and much like there, the initial “Who is Orchestra Gold?” question was quickly turned into audience adoration as the crowd moved to the beat and roared in appreciation.

Vetiver @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Vetiver @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

San Francisco-formed Vetiver began the festivities over on the Swan Stage. Andy Cabic and his bandmates brought their Americana folk guitar based music to a large early arriving crowd. Despite not performing for more than a year, songs like “Rolling Sea” seemed to perfectly fit the foggy early Friday afternoon.

Kingfish @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kingfish @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Friday arguably belonged to Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. The Grammy-winning blues guitarist from Mississippi had the crowd buzzing in anticipation and the hill and grass of Lindley Meadow full of people who had either seen some of his more recent shows locally or caught wind of the labels being applied to his talent. Kingfish let no one down. His 50-minute set had an entire day’s worth of guitar wizardry and demonstrated his stirring command of the stage.

Kingfish @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kingfish @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Imagine if you gave guitars to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince and Buddy Guy to record a song and then picked the best moments from each of them to form a track. Kingfish shapeshifts back and forth seamlessly from deep blues to screaming rock to pounding funk. The weather may have been foggy, but he was a bright light for the entire park.

Kingfish @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kingfish @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Songs like the bluesy “Fresh Out” and the funky “Hard Times” allowed Kingfish to shine and also displayed the talents of his band. Bassist Paul Rogers, keyboard/organ artist Deshawn “D-Vibes” Alexanderon and drummer Christopher Black added deep, rich layers of sound behind Kingfish’s playing and singing. The band ended with “662” featuring an intro that could have belonged to AC/DC and a super pace fueled by D-Vibes keys. What is the significance of “662?” That’s the area code for northern Mississippi – the dead center origin point and the famous Crossroads of Clarksdale. It will be interesting to see how Kingfish’s enormous talents are marketed in coming years as he is still only 24 years old with a ridiculous amount of inertia and talent. To get a great taste of his music delivered live, check out the just-released Live in London that was released just a few weeks ago.

John Craigie @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
John Craigie @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

John Craigie over on Swan stage talked about how this was his third Hardly Strictly and told the crowd how much he appreciated being on one of the large stages. “They had me playing late in the day on a small stage by an exit and told me that I would get a good crowd as people headed out. I did get some to stop, but I saw a lot of people pause briefly to check me out and then say, “Nah. We’re outta here.” The singer-songwriter, accompanied by his bassist and electric guitarist delivered a nice, witty set highlighted by songs like “Hustlin’” and “Part Wolf.”

Ben Nichols of Lucero @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Ben Nichols of Lucero @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

America’s greatest whiskey bar band, Lucero brought their patented blend of punk-Americana from their Memphis homebase to Hardly Strictly for the third time (2010 and 2012) with a fun, driving set that saw them play 15 songs in their 55 minutes. As always, lead singer Ben Nichols brought his engaging and humble presence to go with his powerful lead vocals and guitar. The band has incredible tenure, with the current group being together for nearly 20 years. Lead guitarist Brian Venable and keyboardist Rick Steff created a huge wall of sound while bassist John C. Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry kept the band’s rhythm mostly on a breakneck pace.

Lucero's Ben Nichols @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Lucero's Ben Nichols @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The fog had gotten thick to the point of near rain as they took the stage, but the band seemed energized by the crisp weather. “We’re from Tennessee. We’ve been waiting months for weather like this!” an enthusiastic Stubblefield told me after their set. Highlights included “Buy A Little Time” from their 2023 album Should’ve Learned by Now, classics like “Texas & Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Thing.”

Lucero @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Lucero @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Appropriately, Lucero spotlighted “San Francisco” – a rollicking drinking song (of course, that label could be applied to several of the band’s songs and is supported by Nichols longtime penchant for whiskey toasts on stage) that documents Nichols visits to Northern California and a past love in Santa Rosa. A full-engine ahead version of “Tears Don’t Matter Much” with an enthusiastic and throaty audience singalong preceded the final tear jerker of “It Gets the Worst at Night.” “We can’t walk away without a sad song,” Nichols told the crowd.

Shakey Graves @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Shakey Graves @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

As soon as the last chord rang out from Lucero, Shakey Graves walked out onto the Swan stage with a guitar in hand – clad in a mechanics style outfit with his name embroidered above his pocket and Shakey Graves patches on his sleeve and cap. He performed the first two songs with only his guitar and a kick drum before introducing his band. “I know it’s clichĂ©,” he told the crowd pointing over the adjoining hill. “But I bought acid from a guy just over that hill. It was about an hour ago. So, we are going to have a really great show!” And Graves delivered on his promise with a set that balanced terrific music, vocals with a heaping dash of comedic banter thrown in for a great connection with the audience.

Dawes @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Dawes @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The sun came out ever so briefly for Dawes in the day’s final set. Taylor Goldsmith led his band on a jam-filled 50-minute set that began with an excellent version of an opus-like “Someone Else’s CafĂ©/Doomscroller Tries to Relax.” The band, who were making their (at least) fourth appearance in the Bay Area this year, caught a very nice groove on “Comes in Waves.” They delivered a rousing “When My Time Comes” to lead into the tender finale of “All Your Favorite Bands” to send the crowd out of the park as the fog returned.

Olivia Wolf @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Olivia Wolf @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

For Saturday’s day two, I focused on a narrow mid-show block of artists. Olivia Wolf, an up-and-coming country singer over on the Arrow Stage has only released four songs, but showed her promise in a 45-minute set featuring originals and covers. She demonstrated a huge likability to go along with her strong vocals. “Well, that was the first country song ever written about whiskey,” she self-deprecatingly joked at one point. Her recent EP release of Our Vinyl Sessions provides a nice listen of Wolf’s talent.

The Third Mind @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
The Third Mind @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Dave Alvin has visited Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in many different forms throughout his career. For 2023, he brought “The Third Mind” – his psychedelic supergroup project – to Golden Gate Park on the Swan Stage. Alvin’s renowned guitar-playing was accompanied by one of the foremost experts in the psychedelic song in Ratdog’s Mark Karan who Alvin introduced as “joining us today with the fancy guitar.” In the spirit of the project, the band did many improvisational jams with drummer Michael Jerome providing in the pocket drumming throughout and vocalist Jesse Sykes handling lead vocal duties.

Mark Karan of The Third Mind @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Mark Karan of The Third Mind @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The band seemed to send music shooting out from all angles into the park as their sound drifted in waves. They culminated their set with a soaring version of “Morning Dew” that certainly felt at home on the overcast and mildly wet festival grounds.

Kanene Donehey Pipkin of The Lone Bellow @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kanene Donehey Pipkin of The Lone Bellow @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The Lone Bellow was one of two acts for me that delivered deeply compelling sets that had me obsessively looking into their story and trying to devour their catalogue. Based out of Brooklyn, the band was formed by lead singer and guitarist Zach Williams at a time of personal turmoil. Featuring lead guitarist Brian Elmquist and singer and multi-instrumentalist Kanene Donehey Pipkin, they have been around for a decade (their 2013 debut album was awarded number 8 on People Magazine’s Top 10 albums of that year) and yet somehow I had never crossed paths with them. Their sound is reminiscent of The Head and The Heart, but the group definitely has its own vibe. They’ve worked with producers Aaron Dessner (The National) and super-producer Dave Cobb and developed an alternative-folk identity.

The Lone Bellow's Zach Williams @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
The Lone Bellow's Zach Williams @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Williams brought an extremely animated stage presence and Pipken spread her energy by flowing back and forth across the stage throughout the set. Elmquist laid into some terrific guitar solos and the three together have the nucleus of a band that seems destined for bigger things and soon. 2022’s Love Songs for Losers was spotlighted at Hardly Strictly with “Wherever Your Heart Is” and “I’m in Love” standing out live as should be huge hits. Their set was surely a highlight of the festival for those who caught them on the Towers of Gold stage.

Say She She @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Say She She @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Sunday promised the best weather of the weekend, though the sun appearances seemed to be brief and fleeting – the sort of day during which the hoodie comes on and off several times. Say She She brought their very original disco-style to the Swan stage to start off the day. Singers Sabrina Mileo Cunningham, Nya Gazelle Brown and Piya Malik front the band that has developed a very strong following. A large crowd welcomed them to the stage in the 11am slot and stayed engaged and dancing to their funky, New York-sound set.

Say She She @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Say She She @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The group’s fun vibe is not to bely their important voice and purpose-driven values. They took a stand for reproductive rights early in 2022 with their powerful single “Norma” and backed it up with their powerful performance of the song on Sunday. “We will not go back!” the women sang beautifully and defiantly.

Georgie Fuller of The Heavy Heavy @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Georgie Fuller of The Heavy Heavy @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The Heavy Heavy - a traditional rock band that toured the United States thoroughly in 2023 - was the second of the weekend’s bands that inspired wonder of where they are headed. Based out of Brighton, England – the band delivers the canyon-style sounds of the Mamas and the Papas, along with the harmonies and harder edge of the Eagles. Their album pulls deeply on those tones and carries their sound a bit far into an ethereal place. Live, they are kick ass rock ‘n’ roll through and through with superior harmonies and an excellent musicianship across all instruments. Founders Will Turner (guitar, lead vocals) and Georgie Fuller (keys, lead vocals) take the traditional spotlight positions of a band, but Benjamin Parker (guitar), Thomas Holder (bass) and James Porter (drums) all deserver their share of the light too! All four non-drummers sing and harmonize together to create a powerful sound.

The Heavy Heavy @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
The Heavy Heavy @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

With only one album under their belt and a big year of touring to multi-sized US venues, it will be exciting to see where this band goes on their next album. In addition to their well-received set Sunday on the Heart of Gold stage, the band opened a Monday night “Out of the Park” aftershow at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater for Valerie June. The crowd was overwhelmingly there for June’s performance but were blown away by The Heavy Heavy’s arena-level intensity performance in a club setting. It was fun to watch the crowd quickly evolve from clueless about the band to compelled.

The John Doe Folk Trio @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
The John Doe Folk Trio @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Another longtime veteran Hardly Strictly performer brought his latest incarnation to the Swan stage as the John Doe Folk Trio took the noon hour spot. Doe and his trio delivered a nice blend of country and Spanish language songs with the tunes of his most famous band, X. The Trio’s versions of “Burning House of Love” and “The New World” were fun takes on the LA punk classic and the latter was followed by a delve into The Beatles’ “Revolution.”

Valerie June @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Valerie June @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The sun seemed motivated to shine ever so briefly on Valerie June’s incredibly positive Swan stage set. June once again brought her highly original vocals and multi-instrumentalism to accompany her powerful positive messages. “Yeah, it’s Sunday,” she told the audience. “So I’m going to preach a little.” She wore the weekend’s most vibrant onstage attire in a style that reflected her self-described “fairy of the forest” persona. She leapt and pranced and howled and growled in a commanding performance that included a very memorable “Call Me a Fool” and “Astral Plane.’ She had the huge crowd roaring in appreciation and delighting in her personality as she regaled them with her philosophies and stories – including her trip to African safari from which she had just landed back in the US the day before the concert.

Valerie June @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Valerie June @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The next night, her appearance at Sweetwater included both a book tour launch (her new book Light Beams – a workbook for being your badass self was just released) and a solo performance where June sat center stage surrounded by her instruments and gorgeous flower displays. There, she performed songs, read some of her poetry and shared deeply personal stories and thoughts on life with a rapt crowd. She delivered a highly memorable cover of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” in her unique style. June told the crowd how a busking trip up the West Coast had made her believe that she could make it as a musician and led her to quit her job as a cleaner and focus on music.

Neil Francis @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Neil Francis @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Going back to Sunday in the park, Neal Francis seemed to channel a young Elton John is his electrifying performance. Manning the keys while belting out vocals, the Chicagoan had the crowd dancing joyously with songs like “Can’t Stop The Rain” and “Alameda Apartments.”

Jerry Douglas @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Jerry Douglas @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

The Jerry Douglas Band saw one of the original Hardly Strictly performers retake the stage to demonstrate his mastery of the Dobro – a resonator guitar that is played face up. Douglas showed his prowess with both the Dobro and slide guitar and finished the set with a spectacular “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit closed the Towers of Gold stage for the weekend with a 12-song 70-minute set to an audience that filled the entirety of the meadow and hillside. Isbell took to the stage with a wide smile announcing “I believe this is the greatest music festival in America. And then brought forth three songs off their new album Weathervanes to start the set with “When We Were Close,” “King of Oklahoma” and “Strawberry Woman” before visiting some of the more classic songs.

Jason Isbell @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Jason Isbell @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

He recognized the anniversary of their Southeastern album and performed three songs off the album with “Stockholm” starting it off. After performing “Stockholm,” he told the story of performing the song in that city: “they went absolutely bats*#t crazy for that song. And then they just sat on their hands for the rest of the concert.” Additionally, they played “Flying Over Water” and a penultimate “Cover Me up” before returning to the new album for a final version of “This Ain’t It” that ended in a large crescendo.

Kurt Vile @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Kurt Vile @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

Finally, after three days of music Kurt Vile and the Violators came out onto the Swan Stage as the sun disappeared and the fall foggy chill began to bite. He opened the set with 2022’s “Palace of OKV in Reverse” and as the adjacent stage had ended for the day, the crowd reached huge proportions for the former lead guitarist of the War on Drugs. Highlights of his set included versions of his recent songs “Flyin (Like a Fast Train)” and “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)”

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival @ Golden Gate Park (Photo: Sean Reiter)

In all, the 2023 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival seemed to be a triumphant success. Large, well-behaved crowds gathered in Golden Gate Park on all three days. The well-balanced lineup seemed to nicely spread the crowds. Lines for food, merchandise and restrooms all appeared very manageable whenever I got a look. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks department, along with organizers deserve a huge round of applause for a terrific weekend that left more than 100,000 a day eagerly awaiting next year’s artist reveals.

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