By Kaylen Baker
“This,” said a friend, turning and surveying a backlit crowd, bopping and blazing under an unlikely October sun, “is the real San Francisco.”
I’m new to this city, and its croaking cables, faddish food trends, steep hills, all-aboard attitude, and free bluegrass festival have captivated me.
I was stuck in the largest forested mob I’d ever seen, between the nubby hills that form Hellman’s Hollow. To my left a drunk woman shouted into her cell on the shoulders of a drunk man, to my right a bare-chested beer-bellied man flapped his arms above his head, and ahead, the String Cheese Incident spread a bluesy beach jam over this valley of ears.
Back up to day one of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
The air smelled rich, sweet; Napa was burning, wafting blue oak and pine smoke into the ripe pungency of weed and optimism and sunscreen. I joined friends at the Banjo stage, where they had set up beach chairs and a folding cooler-come-table. Plastic wine glasses were drained and refilled.
Seldom Scene stood 15 feet away. Dudley Connell rounded off “Muddy Waters” with a long sustained “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” just as a skein of geese zigzagged overhead.
“This is really good bluegrass,” someone near me said, as the 42-year-old band began “Darling Corey.” Melding guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and dobro, the musicians read each others’ minds. “It’s like soul music from the mountains,” someone else said. “It’s very spiritual.”
Lou Reid had a voice slipperier than a slide on a string. “Pretty woman have gone to my head,” he sang. I could hear a river in the strings, and I felt a vastness, a simple kind of longing. There’s something curiously curing about hearing lovesick, lonely bluegrass — strictly bluegrass — in an open field.
Hardly came later, at the Arrow stage. Father John Misty’s soulful, sexy voice sprawled out over a younger crowd. The artist (formerly known as Fleet Foxes’ J.Tillman) sat alone with his guitar, legs crossed, sandal-footed, behind a giant cut-out iPhone. Words from a new song — “policy and families, the golden era of TV”— made the crowd laugh.
As Tillman sang, a kid ran onstage, tackled shortly by security. “Yeah!” Tillman said, “I support your freedom.” Let loose, the kid made yet another ill-fated run. Still playing, Tillman called, “Let’s all settle down, it’s just acoustic guitar.”
Despite the laughs, something cutting emerged below Tillman’s smooth, ironic voice. He was a dark joker, righteously pissed when the crowd missed jokes, too busy snapping Instagram photos on real iPhones.
The most ironic part about Tillman wasn’t his commentary on our disengaged generation, but that by not singing about his broken heart or yellow bird (see Conor Oberst over at the Rooster stage), he became even more of an emotional presence onstage.
Finishing a song with absolutely no ado, Tillman added, “Thank you, good night,” and walked away.
By late afternoon the heat rolled away and the smell of caramel corn drifted through the moist grass. I grabbed an under-spiced falafel and people-watched — bearded, feathered, tattooed, uninhibited, high, dripping youth, as well as T-shirted, dancing, drinking, laid-back old timers. They drifted towards stages where hidden musicians tuned up for the night’s last show.
Bonnie Raitt’s voice magnetized the dense crowd, and I only managed to jot “soft, lovely, and worn, like an old velvet dress,” before I was pulled in myself. Listening to “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” I had to assume there would be something seriously wrong with the world if someone didn't love this graceful, wise redhead.
I missed Saturday’s concert due to work; Sunday was madness. I descended the hills into a writhing mass of bodies. Somewhere east, a deep twang grew out of the Devil Makes Three, who made a hell of a lot of moody noise playing “Graveyard.”
Giant noodles, flags, pineapples, aliens, and a unicorn bobbed above a crowd so thick that people climbed trees to see above a dirty breeze. Along the way I lost my friends and met up with new ones. By the time Pete Bernhard belted “Black Irish,” I couldn’t agree more: “I don’t want this night to ever turn into day.”
By evening, every band become a mush of wailing fiddles.
Last up, the String Cheese Incident (SCI). The psychedelic, peppy mood swings didn’t really do enough for me, when suddenly, a song started up unlike anything I’d ever heard, tribal and springy and sobbing. It was “BollyMunster.” Michael Kang’s western violin swerved and ducked between epic eastern Bollywood electronics. It sounded like it was coming from our own primeval selves.
As the sunset turned majestic, SCI pronounced Hardly Strictly “one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever played.” I agreed, and then I was dancing, because “Rosie” had a beat that made me jump and holler.