“NO MATTER HOW COOL IT GETS ONSTAGE, the feeling from the audience at this festival keeps you warm enough to smile through your set,” San Francisco guitar icon Jorma Kaukonen told GP backstage while he detailed aspects of his M-sized Martin. “It’s a fancy prototype of my forthcoming signature model,” he continued. “I’m not an expert on acoustic instruments, but there sure are a lot of them talking guitar porn at this event.”
The event in question comes courtesy of billionaire Warren Hellman, who delivers a slice of musical heaven to the San Francisco Bay Area in the form of the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which takes place in Golden Gate Park over the course of a weekend each October. It’s free, it’s fabulous, and it’s totally unique. What began in 2001 as the Strictly Bluegrass Festival—featuring genre stalwarts such as Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss & Union Station performing on a pair of stages—has blossomed into a massive, eclectic extravaganza that draws over a half million people and more than 80 acts spread over six stages.
“It’s been a huge boost for us to play here each of the past six years,” said multi-instrumentalist Simon Kurth, aka Eli Jebidiah of the locally-based, “high octane hootenanny” outfit Poor Man’s Whiskey. “And this year I got to hang out with Robert Plant backstage after he sat in with Buddy Miller.”
Luminaries such as Doc Watson, Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, and Richie Havens abound at Hardly Strictly, but the tsunami of folks flowing towards the Banjo Stage Saturday afternoon evidenced a keen interest in seeing whether comedian and actor Steve Martin could deliver killer lines as a musician as well. As it turns out, he can. Martin demonstrated bails of impressive rhythm-hand technique as he performed songs from his instrumental album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, along with the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Counter culture clown prince Wavy Gravy succinctly summed up the Hardly Strictly vibe. “It’s wonderful, and the price is right.”