TOFU AND WHISKEY A precious indie rock troubadour from Omaha, a comedy legend, and an aging punk icon — not exactly the types you'd picture as major players at this weekend's annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Then again, that's the organizing wizardry of the free Golden Gate Park based fest: the ongoing surprises, unexpected performers, and uncanny mix of live acts from disparate genres that somehow blends seamlessly over a single fog-filled park weekend.
Overall, the fest seems to be getting a tad hipper in 2013, or at least even more experimental. One of the acts mentioned above (that punk one) is outspoken Minor Threat and Fugazi frontperson Ian MacKaye, who comes to HSB courtesy of his off-kilter indie rock duo, the Evens — with MacKaye's partner Amy Farina.
Two of those aforementioned acts — Conor Oberst and actor/banjoist Steve Martin — are now old hats to this Hardly Strictly rodeo; they've each played multiple years. Though this year Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers feature New Bohemian Edie Brickell.
This is the third year that Oberst will play the festival, and also the third year of "Conor Brings Friends For Friday." He curates the Rooster stage on Friday each year and picks all of the acts.
Oberst's excellent lineup this year includes First Aid Kit, a darling, wood-fairy folk sister duo from Sweden. Johanna and Klara Söderberg of First Aid Kit have a twirling, twangy track called "Emmylou," if you wanted to guess who influenced them, and then add to that June Carter Cash, Gram Parsons, and Simon & Garfunkel.
The lineup also features new-to-HSB rising artists like Father John Misty, a solo folk musician (J. Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes) that takes New Weird America to another level, and makes it authentically compelling. And there's also breezy LA surf-rockers Allah-Las.
Other interesting picks for the weekend include I've Got My Own Hell to Raise soul singer Bettye LaVette, droning minimalist Sub Pop mainstay Low, local heroes like Sonny and the Sunsets and soulful folk-rockers Tumbleweed Wanderers, and white-haired legend Nick Lowe.
"Cruel to be Kind" British new wave singer Lowe has seen an impressive second act with fellow artists like Ted Leo covering his early songs, a resurgence on record (2011's The Old Magic on Yep Rock) and with gracefully played, always-packed live shows. Note that he also has a cheeky holiday album — his first! — coming Oct. 29 on Yep Rock, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family. Given his charm, style, and that dapper accent, he's basically the Michael Caine of pub rock. Bringing Lowe in to Hardly Strictly was a clever choice, another bridge between newbie and veteran park-goers.
On that same note, there's British folk-punk activist/singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, who, in his mid-50s, is still beloved by young punks. Before the fest, check out the 30th anniversary edition of Bragg debut Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy.
One of the bigger surprises in the lineup this year is blisteringly high-energy New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, led by Ukrainian wild-man Eugene Hütz. The boisterous, occasionally grating eight-piece band, which includes members on accordion and electric fiddle, will surely shake up the lounging crowds, perhaps lulled by folksier melodies of earlier performers.