RECAP: 2013 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival

Spirit Family Reunion at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Spirit Family Reunion at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

This story also appeared on The Bluegrass Situation. We’re friends. Friends share things.

The late Warren Hellman would have undoubtedly been smiling this past weekend as hundreds of thousands of people flooded into Golden Gate Park’s Hellman Hollow for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – an event that the billionaire launched thirteen years ago. The free three-day festival, which kicked off on Friday amid incredible San Francisco weather, again hosted a massive and extremely talented lineup spread across six stages.

As the name suggests, the festival lineup goes beyond old time bluegrass, featuring Americana, blues, rock, country and jam bands. The crowd is also hardly strictly filled with the standard bluegrass fans and offers up some of the best crazy people watching I’ve experienced in my lifetime.


  • Following a kickoff instruction event by MC Hammer (yep.  you read that right.), the first day of the festival included a stunning set of songs by Stockholm duo First Aid Kit. I’m not sure if had anything to do with the constant breeze of marijuana in the air or their pretty faces, but it’s hard not to get entranced by those two sweet singing sisters.
  • The crowds grew larger as the sun fell lower with the audience for Bonnie Raitt’s closer set on the Banjo stage spilling onto the surrounding hills more than a hundred yards back – nearly meshing with the audience of the Arrow stage where the southwestern sounds of Calexico captivated thousands more. Raitt’s famed cover of Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” was one of those magic moments that you just wish wouldn’t stop.


  • Day two opened with the lively secular gospel tunes of Brooklyn’s Spirit Family Reunion – a band that has exploded on the festival scene since the release of No Separation, the band’s debut album released last year. “I didn’t come all the way from New York City to sing for you. I came to San Francisco to sing with you,” Family leader and guitarist Nick Panken shouted in a Southern-preacher-like style as the band performed it’s regular crowd-pleasing closer, “I’ll Find a Way.”
  • Soon after, the jammy banjo songs of Alison Brown made for some damn fine lunch tunes.
  • The world of bluegrass stopped two weeks ago when Alison Krauss canceled her appearance at IBMA’s conference in Raleigh due to a newly diagnosed vocal condition. After a sighting backstage, we wondered if she was just bored or if she was there to sing with her brother and AKUS dobro player Jerry Douglas. She did. And she was flawless.
  • Even while folk icon Patty Griffin performed a few stages over, the young music-school-polished string band from Boston, Joy Kills Sorrow, drew a massive and lively young crowd for its powerful set that included the band’s brilliant rendition of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” The set also included a crowd-led birthday song for national champion mandolin virtuoso Jacob Jolliff. The crowd was so spread out that it struggled to stay in sync, but it says something about the good folks in the City by the Bay.
  • After the festival closed on Saturday, I made it to the official after party at Slim’sled by San Francisco’s bluegrass staple, fiddler Laurie Lewis. Lewis emceed a revolving set of festival performers throughout the night. However, the best moment of the evening was a performance by Lewis herself: a three minute fiddle tune while hula hooping.
  • There was also great music happening alongside of the festival. The Deslondes, the newly formed band by New Orleans-based Sam Doores, performed a phenomenal set at Amnesia, a bar in The Mission, late Saturday night. The band is currently touring the country with Spirit Family Reunion and fellow New Orleans folker Hurray for the Riff Raff.


  • Sunday at the festival deserves a full story in and of itself. Festivarians were absolutely perplexed hour after hour by the choices they had to make of between stages. The day included heavy hitters like Ralph StanleySteve Martin, and Emmylou Harris as well as some of our favorite acts that have emerged in the last few years, like Charleston’s Shovels & Rope, Boston’s Della Mae and Saskatoon’s Deep Dark Woods.
  • Chris Isaak made a show-stopping appearance on HSB’s main stage two years ago, and his return this year served as a reminder of why it’s a set we still talk about.  He may skew towards the Hardly end of the Bluegrass spectrum, but there’s no denying the man is a damn good entertainer.  Having Nashville supergroup The Time Jumpers immediately following was a nice added perk.

Learn more about Warren Hellman’s legacy and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at