It's the first weekend in October, which means it's time for everyone's favorite investment banker, Warren Hellman, to unwrap his annual auditory gift to the city of San Francisco known as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. As it has since 2001, when less than a dozen acts were on the bill, this year's free festival takes place at Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park. Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Jerry Douglas were all there that first year, and they have returned for the 2008 extravaganza, along with another 70 or so groups performing from Friday October 3 to Sunday October 5.
Once again the problem for the tens of thousands of music fans who make their way to the show (besides parking, that is, which is why public transportation and bicycles are encouraged) will be to figure out what to see, since incredible music happens simultaneously on five stages.
The exception to this conundrum is the lineup on Friday morning, when HSB kicks things off at 10:30 with a pair of short sets by fiddle whiz kid Ruby Jane and rapper MC Hammer, a pairing that would have impressed even the great Bill Graham. Later in the afternoon at 2:30, singer Sharon Little, who has been on tour with Grammy winners Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, will take the Banjo Stage to warm up the crowd for former Krauss bandmate Jerry Douglas at 3:35. Backed by his own band, Douglas will work his lapsteel magic before Plant (who this week said that no, he would not be reuniting with Led Zeppelin any time soon because he's having a perfectly fine time touring in support of Raising Sand, thank you very much) and Krauss join forces with producer/musician T Bone Burnett at 5:15.
Saturday is a bit trickier. Normally I'd suggest starting the day at 11 with old-timey HSB favorites Dry Branch Fire Squad on the Star Stage, but Jimmie Dale Gilmore is playing at the same time on Banjo, so the guy from Lubbock is probably going to win that hand. Fiddler Laurie Lewis follows Gilmore at 11:55, while fellow fiddler Samantha Robichaud plays the Porch at 12:35, but if you are ready to get a little crazy it's the Waco Brothers you want at Star. You're probably going to end up over there anyhow because Richard Thompson comes on at 1:30. After that it's a quick walk over to Rooster for Nick Lowe at 2:45, followed by one of the best bands of any genre to come out of Colorado, Hot Rize, who play at 3:25 at Banjo. I suspect many people will camp out there for the rest of the day to hear the legendary Odetta at 4:40, followed by alt-country hero Steve Earle at 6:00. But that means missing Asleep At The Wheel at 5:20 at the Arrow Stage and Global Drum Project at about the same time at Star. Decisions decisions...
Sunday is even worse, or better, depending on how you look at these things. Gotta catch Telecaster king Bill Kirchen at 11:00 at Star (I can't remember how many times I saw this guy with Commander Cody back in the day), and ditto Moonalice at noon at Arrow (having Barry Sless and Pete Sears on the same stage is always a treat). After that, you'd be forgiven if you just decided to stay put in front of Banjo for the rest of the day to enjoy the Man of Constant Sorrow himself, Ralph Stanley at 1:45, banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs at 2:55, mandolin maven Ricky Skaggs at 4:15, and the great Emmylou Harris at 5:45. You'd be forgiven, but you might not forgive yourself for missing the action at Arrow, which includes newgrass comers The Waybacks at 3:20, sweet-voiced Pegi Young at 4:30, and jammers Tea Leaf Green at 5:50. Oh, and you'd also fail to see singer-songwriter-bard Loudon Wainwright III at 4:40 at Rooster or Elvis freakin' Costello at 2:30 at Star, followed on the same stage by gypsy punk-rock sensations Gogol Bordello at 4:15, who are not only not strictly bluegrass, but probably aren't even hardly strictly.
I may have to miss Gogol Bordello, but only because I'll be seeing them later that night at Slim's, where they will play a benefit for a website that helps out old dogs. I don't believe Warren Hellman is involved with that yet, but by the end of this weekend, anything is possible.
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass takes place October 3-5, 2008 at Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park. For information, visit hardlystrictlybluegrass.com.