Sunday, October 05, 2008

This weekend, I spent a lot of time at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park.

On Saturday, I was there for most of the day and I saw Dry Branch Fire Squad (with a special appearance by Warren Hellman on old time banjo), Waco Brothers, Richard Thompson, Desert Rose Band, Laurie Lewis and Del McCoury.

The best thing on Saturday was a tie between hearing Richard Thompson's amazing solo guitar playing and hearing a few songs from Laurie Lewis + friends - including Alison Brown, Chad Manning and Dudley Connell.

On Sunday, I was only there for a few hours and saw Bill Kirchen and Riders In The Sky.

The highlight was definitely Riders in the Sky, with Ranger Doug's great swinging rhythm guitar playing, but Bill Kirchen was a pleasant surprise. I'd never heard of him before but he is a famous guitar player, originally with Commander Cody but going on to a good career on his own playing a mix of country, rockabilly, texas swing, boogie-woogie, etc. Very fun show.

Hardly Strictly is a great event in a lot of ways, from being free, to including some of the great bluegrass/country/whatever acts, and having a great setting but it also has a lot of serious flaws.

First, the crowd has become ridiculously large. By mid-afternoon, it is almost impossible to move around and the crowd has transformed from a genial, music appreciating festival crowd to a mix of local yokels that are there to get stoned/drunk, chat with their friends and appreciate "the scene" and whole families that have brought the parents, kids, aunts, uncles, pets, etc to have a picnic in the park where the music is, with the accompanying talking, pets running around, kids playing, etc.

The second is the sound mix. I assume most of the sound people are from the rock/country scene because they can't figure out how to properly mix a bluegrass band for their lives. They always mix the bass way, way too high and don't know what to do with the other instruments. I saw a few minutes of Heidi Clare's set and the sound guy seemed to think that the bass and guitar were the most important (i.e. loudest) instruments in the mix, and that Heidi's fiddle was strictly background, since he had it mixed the quitest and it could barely be heard.

The third are the festival rules/setup. The website says that people aren't allowed to setup till 10am, but everyone knows that is a lie and shows up early in the morning if they want to preserve their space. And they are allowed to save space by using large tarps. The result is that the first 50 feet before the stage is a quiltwork of tarps, half of them un-occupied until later in the day. Early on Saturday, a friend and I were near the front of the main stage looking for a friend, and decided we wanted to stop and listen to the band for a minute. We sat down on an open tarp and a minute later we were told by the people sitting in front of the tarp that the people using that tarp would be back in a minute to eat lunch but that if we wanted to stay they had a "free, spare" tarp just behind that wasn't being used. So that tarp sat there right in front of the main stage, empty for 90% of the time.
barely be heard.

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