News Column

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: 13 must-see acts for the festival

October 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 01--There's no shortage of big-name headliners on the 2013 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass bill.

This year's free festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday in Hellman Hollow and Lindley and Marx Meadows in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, features such widely celebrated artists as Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs, Los Lobos, Steve Martin, Conor Oberst, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Chris Isaak and the String Cheese Incident.

Yet the lesser-known acts on the bill are just as intriguing. (For the full lineup, and other information, go to www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com.)

Here are my 13 picks for the 13th annual HSB.

Friday

First Aid Kit: I'm mesmerized by this Swedish indie-folk duo, which initially came to fame with its cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song." The act, which consists of sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg, is already a major hit in Northern European countries. Now, the folks in the U.S. are starting to catch on as well. Details: 4:30-5:15 p.m.; Rooster Stage.

The Evens: The guy singing and strumming guitar onstage will probably look familiar to some fans. Yes, it's Ian MacKaye, the man who gave the world two of the most important American punk bands of all time -- Minor Threat and Fugazi. And, yes, the Evens are a very different kind of project for him. The iconic vocalist-guitarist is working in a duo setting with vocalist-drummer Amy Farina and crafting indie-rock that can be downright folksy at times. It's hard to imagine Fugazi working at HSB -- although I'd love to see the band try -- but the Evens should have no problem fitting right in. Details: 3:20-4 p.m.; Rooster Stage.

Freakwater: This Kentucky alt-country act should appeal to fans of Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle. The group mixes heartbreak, harmonies and a touch of humor in quite memorable ways. Details: 1:15-2:05 p.m.; Arrow Stage.

Saturday

Mike Scott and Steve Wickham of the Waterboys: Seemingly everyone who followed the Scottish rock band during its '80s heyday is in agreement that it "should've been huge." That assessment is largely based on the two sensational Waterboys albums from that decade -- "This Is the Sea" and "Fisherman's Blues." The HSB performance features singer-songwriter Scott and fiddler extraordinaire Wickham. If you prefer a full-band set, go see the Waterboys on Sunday at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco (www.slimspresents.com). Details: 2:40-3:30; Porch Stage.

Kat Edmonson: What do Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Boz Scaggs and Lyle Lovett have in common? They've all fallen under the spell of this folksy, jazzy-pop singer from Texas. Her voice is utterly bewitching, which is probably why so many established stars want to share the stage and/or recording studio with Edmonson. Details: 11-11:40 a.m.; Arrow Stage.

Natalie Maines: Fans didn't hear a peep from the Dixie Chicks vocalist for years. Now, she's ready to make some noise in support of her first solo album, "Mother," which hit stores in May. She's rocking and rolling this time around, instead of singing Dixie-style country-pop, and the change suits her quite well -- at least for right now. A little birdie told me that the Chicks are actually reuniting for some concert dates.

Details: 5:40-7 p.m.; Star Stage.

Bettye LaVette: The R&B/soul singer had to wait -- and wait -- for her moment to arrive. She was just 16 when she released her first record in the early '60s, yet the public didn't really catch on until 2005's breakthrough effort "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise." Now 67, LaVette is living large, fully enjoying the attention and acclaim that should have been hers decades ago. Details: 1:20-2:10 p.m.; Towers of Gold Stage.

Holler Down the Hollow -- A Hardly Strictly Salute to the Masters: A star-studded HSB cast -- featuring "pretty much everyone who is there," according to festival organizer Dawn Holliday -- will pay tribute to the Carter Family, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and other old-timey music legends. Expect to see such talents as Emmylou Harris, Steve Martin and Jerry Douglas take the stage. Details: 2:45-3:55 p.m.; Banjo Stage.

Sunday

Gogol Bordello: I could talk about the records, even mention a few highlights from the group's songbook. I could go on and on about the band's intriguing gypsy-punk hybrid sound. Yet the bottom line is that Gogol Bordello is crazy good in concert -- with emphasis on the crazy. This should be the wildest set of the entire weekend. Details: 5:50-7 p.m.; Star Stage.

Richard Thompson: Longtime HSB fans hardly need me to tell them that Thompson is one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Yet they might not know that his latest offering, "Electric," is one of the year's best albums. Indeed, it's arguably Thompson's finest outing since 1991's "Rumor and Sigh," the album that gave the world "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Plus, the new songs sounded superb during his set at the BottleRock Napa Valley festival in May. Details: 1:20-2:20 p.m.; Towers of Gold Stage.

Robert Ellis: HSB's Dawn Holliday always introduces me to at least one worthy new artist with each festival lineup. My 2013 discovery, via Holliday, is rising country-folk talent Robert Ellis. He's a terrific singer-songwriter-guitarist based in (where else?) Nashville. I've been watching videos of Ellis and am really impressed with the way he spins a story. Details: 6:20-6:50 p.m.; Porch Stage.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, featuring Edie Brickell: What do you get when you combine Ms. "What I Am" with Martin's bluegrass band? I'm curious to find out what Brickell will add to the already enjoyable equation onstage. The ensemble is touring in support of Martin and Brickell's "Love Has Come For You," a collaborative effort that hit stores in April. Expect the between-song banter to be the best of the entire festival. Details: 1:25-2:35 Sunday; Banjo Stage.

The Allah-Las: Need a break from all the twang? Then check out this fine garage-rock band from the City of Angels. The Allah-Las drew rave reviews for its live show at the most recent South by Southwest festival in Texas. Details: 11:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Towers of Gold Stage.

Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.

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(c)2013 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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