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.
Another curiosity is the Forest Rangers with Katey Sagal. If you watch Sons of Anarchy, you hear the Forest Rangers on the soundtrack every week. And if you watch Sons of Anarchy (or Futurama or Married With Children), you know actress Katey Sagal. You do the math with this one, readers.
And of course, there'll always be the beloved regulars like Robert Earl Keen, and Boz Scaggs, and perhaps the most exciting pick of the lineup, at least, according folks on the Internet: blues singer-songwriter and slide guitar legend, Bonnie Raitt (who, by the way, I peeped up in a balcony at the San Francisco Symphony opening gala last month; the flaming red hair with a shock of white was a dead giveaway).
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass takes place this Fri/4-Sun/6, at Hellman Hollow (formerly Speedway Meadows), Lindley and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. As always, it's free and open to the public. Don't forget to pack a jacket, a blanket, and some food — and seriously, respect that park, residents and visitors. For more information, visit www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com .
The free park concerts don't end this weekend. Friends of the Amphitheater at McLaren Park's free Saturday afternoon concerts at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater continue through the fall. Next week, (Oct. 12 at 2pm) there will be ska-toned rock steady and early reggae locals the Titan Ups, Sweet Felony, and the Eddie Neon Project. Facebook: Saturday in the Park McLaren.
After nearly two decades of service as a Polk Street music venue, the Red Devil Lounge will shutter on New Year's Day, 2014. And what's going to be in its place? Another craft cocktail bar, this time via Jamal Blake-Williams, who currently runs the bar at the Tipsy Pig. Recent acts at the venue have included Martha Davis & the Motels and Pop Rocks. The lounge's calendar is still booked through the end of the year. But after that, hello craft cocktails and likely a whole different kind of crowd. Red Devil owner Jay Siegan will focus on events at the other venues at which he already promotes shows, like Bimbo's, DNA Lounge, Cafe Du Nord, Regency, Warfield, and Fox Theater.
Young Oakland soul singer Mara Hruby introduced herself in 2010 with From Her Eyes (self-released), a beat-filled covers EP marked by Hruby's velvety vocals. On the album, she reimagines tracks by Andre 3000, D'Angelo, Mos Def, and Bob Marley, creating complex and lovely new and modern versions. After that EP dropped, she's been on the verge of superstardom ever since, the steady riser. She's consistently played local fests and venues, but has yet to release a follow-up full-length, leaving her rapt fans ready and waiting for more. In the meantime, spend an evening with the talented artist live, before she bursts even bigger, beyond the bounds of the Bay. Featuring Chris Turner.
Wed/2, 8pm, $18. Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero W., Oakl. www.yoshis.com .
Dennis Aman's re-tuned Fisher-Price instruments, Fred Firth's homemade string instruments, the premiere of David Samas' new opera incorporating found objects from the sea. The People & Thingamajigs festival — now in its 16th year — explores unexpected ways to make sound, incredibly far from the normalcy of your standard music fest. This year's event takes place Friday through Oct. 14 at the Meridian Gallery and the Center for New Music in San Francisco and at the Berkeley Arts Festival. It includes mind-expanding performances by Aman, Firth, Samas, "professional bricoleur, junkyard maven and young audio-gadgeteer" Sudhu Tewari, cellist-composer Doug Carroll, and multi-instrumentalist Bob Marsh, who also is the leader of String Theory. Come for the thingamajigs, stay for the music.
Oct. 4-14, $10–$15. Various venues, SF and Berkeley. www.thingamajigs.org .
True, you can see Allah-Las for free at HSB this weekend, but this band is so worth going out at night for. The sunny LA surf rock group blew me away at Noise Pop a few years back, opening for Budos Band. The group's riffs seem to dance along and ripple like waves, as any good surf band's guitar work should, creating a sugary blend of beachy So Cal cool and trippier psych that would fit right in somewhere along the Haight a few decades back. Even better, the group plays the Chapel tonight with twinkly baroque pop multi-instrumentalist Jacco Gardner. With Light Fantastic.
Sat/5, 9pm, $20. Chapel, 777 Valencia, SF. www.thechapelsf.com .
The many-roomed experimental Mission music venue that is Public Works celebrates three years of club nights and live shows with an eclectic lineup befitting of its history. The main draw is legendary Austrian DJ Peter Kruder of Kruder & Dorfmeister, but there's also Christian Martin, J Boogie, an Afrolicious DJ set, John Vincent, Vitamin Devo, and Honey Soundsystem's Jackie House. Along with the DJ sets, there's a Radio Silence curated happy hour show with live bands Yalls and Churches in the loft.
Sat/5, 9pm (happy hour at 8:30), $10–$20. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com