San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is truly a unique experience. Like the name suggests, the festival features a variety of artists ranging from traditional American Folk to Italian Opera. The Concert (founded in 2001) is free of charge to the public thanks to investor Warren Hellman. Some of the artists that have performed over the years include Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, MC Hammer, Gogol Bordello, Dolly Parton, Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Willie Nelson, and countless more. The festival attracts thousands of attendees, putting stress on not only it’s venue, Golden Gate Park, but the entire city. It is not uncommon to see dozens of festival goers try to cram onto a packed city bus, or wait in line for 30+ minutes at a nearby sandwich stop. It’s a madhouse, but people come back year after year because of the outstanding lineup.
This particular day, I made my way into the city at around 3pm (I was up until 4am doing homework the night before). My first act of the day was John Prine. I quickly met up with some friends I had made at The Bonnaroo Festival (Manchester, Tennessee) in 2010. They had just returned from a Oregon/Washington Trip up north, and this would be their last Bay Area festival before heading east (They are on a USA adventure). After catching up with them (and their new friend from New Zealand), we focused our attention on the music. Mr. John Prine sounded fantastic. He was very well received by the crowd, and seemed to really enjoy being there. I spent much of the set trying to figure out how many people were familiar with him. One of my friends was raised on his music (as was I), while the other did not know who he was. John Prine has been active since 1971, and has released many albums since that time. The crowd seemed kind of split in that regard. Although there were many who were fans (and were cheering as he announced every song), I think that many others still considered him the opener for Plant. His set list included everything you would expect from a Prine show (Souvenirs, Paradise, Lake Marie). His set clocked in at just about an hour. I then moved further up into the crowd.
I was not as excited too see Robert Plant as I was two years ago. My first time seeing Plant was at Hardly Strictly in 2009 (when he & Allison Krause were supporting their bluegrass album) and Bonnaroo 2011 (with the Band of Joy). Being a Led Zeppelin fan, seeing Plant is truly something amazing. While I am a Zeppelin fan, my close friend who joined me for this set is possibly the biggest Led Zeppelin fan in the world. I love going to concerts where whoever is accompanying me is a super-fan. It makes the show that much more exciting. Although seeing Plant is an incredible experience, it is still not the same as seeing Led Zeppelin. I am too young to have caught them in their prime, and the closest I can get is watching recordings of their one-off 2007 reunion. Through interviews with various band members, it is pretty clear that Robert Plant is the only one opposed to a full on reunion tour. Robert Plant took the stage a little bit late, opening with Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”. His voice still sounds incredible! That has always surprised me about him. He has been able to keep his voice sounding great when others (Vince Neil, Ozzy, Axl) struggle with sounding like they did in their prime. His backing band was pretty awesome. In his “Band of Joy”, he gathered many well-respected musicians. A few of his backing musicians (Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller) had other sets throughout the weekend. The band covered Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance” and about the time he jumped into Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” I decided to ramble on down to the other stage to catch the end of the Bright Eyes set. Rock on Plant, rock on. I just hope that next time I see you will be onstage with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham’s son Jason. Is that too much to ask for?
Bright Eyes have always interested me. I cannot say I have never sat through one of their entire albums, but I hear their name all the time in the music world. I know they are from Omaha, Nebraska but I am not entirely sure what is in Omaha besides corn. Maybe the lack of activity in the area allows musicians more time to practice? I only caught the very end of their set. What I did manage to catch really impressed me. Not only were they playing at the same time as Robert Plant, but Chris Isaak was also on a nearby stage at the time (my first exposure to whom was when goth-rockers H.I.M. covered “Wicked Game” back in my high school years). Bright Eyes managed to have a dynamic stage show (my cousin and yet another friend were up closer) and have more of a punk rock “in-your face-loud-noises” feel than I was expecting. I will make sure to catch a full set next time. I was dead tired, but was trying my best to stay awake because the night was not even close to being over for me. I was going to fight my way through public transit to Downtown San Francisco to see Odd Future.
Review by Patrick Kramer
Photo by Bryan Ellison