It's hard to say what's so special about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It's free, of course, thanks to the late philanthropist and banjo player Warren Hellman, who founded the festival so he could play with bluegrass heroes like the late Hazel Dickens. And that spirit of generosity infiltrates everything about the event, the friendliness of the crowds and the pleasure the artists seem to take in being here. Booker Dawn Holliday can also be counted on to schedule a wide range of roots music, and stuff you just don't expect. This year, my Do List co-host John Vanderslice and I are excited about bluegrass and country classicists like Berkeley's Laurie Lewis, and regulars Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and the Brothers Comatose (real bluegrass).
But also we like San Francisco indie prodigy Lila Blue, just 17 years old, who writes such knowing songs, and made her first recordings at Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studios.
Hardly Strictly also features a pretty good jazz lineup with appearances by Ornette Coleman's sidemen from his Prime Time band, guitarist Marc Ribot, David Murray, and Bay Area saxophonist Howard Wiley. And the "least likely" award goes to Cheap Trick, who Holliday said she booked "to add levity." The festival runs Oct. 6–8; details here.