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Harley Strictly Bluegrass this weekend. We aren’t in Kansas anymore

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass live online launches Friday

If you were in San Francisco in 2001 you might have seen posters of an old log cabin,inside of a rough wooden picture frame with the TransAmerica Tower behind it – an unusual juxtaposition of images.  The title of the poster was “Strictly Bluegrass”  and it promoted a free San Francisco celebration of bluegrass music.  The concert was headlined by Emmylou Harris and featured bands like The Road Oilers and Dale Ann Bradley & Coon Creek, known mostly to bluegrass fans. It offered two small stages in Golden Gate Park and ran from 11am -5pm.

HSB – as it came to be known –  was launched by a wealthy SF venture capitalist, the late Warren Hellman, who loved bluegrass music and picked up a banjo himself every now and then. Using his money – he was an early backer of SanDisk and Apple – he was able to produce a completely ticket-free and sponsor-free concert.  No charge, no ads, no banners. Just  music.

What started out as a few hours and nine bands in Golden Gate Park, grew to a was 3 day festival with  over 100 bands and750,000 people – and still free and with no corporate sponsors.  Just Hellman’s estate picking up the tab.

As you can guess,  the festival is not only an iconic celebration in the San Francisco cultural pantheon, but also a magnet for bluegrass, folk, and Americana music, drawing some of the best  folk musicians in the world. Performers like Emmylou Harris, Hazel Dickens, Gillian Welch, Earl Scruggs, Peter Rowan, Buddy Miller, and Alison Brown have played multiple times.  If you are a fan or player of American roots music, San Francisco is holy ground in the first week of October for 20 years.

But Covid  changed all that in 2020. No hundreds of thousands of fans packed into Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park.  No multiple stages with dancing crowds.  No scores of bands hanging out and jamming together. So the producers came up with a pretty clever alternative they  took the show on the road.

 The Hardly Strictly team went to cities all over the US and filmed  their  favorite artist’s performing on their home turf –  Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, the Bay Area and even Ireland.  They edited the films into a  3-hour broadcast, “Let The Music Play On” broadcast on October 3rd last year to a huge audience and which  raised over $500,000 towards Artist Relief for out of work musicians. They then went on to create a bi-weekly a bi-weekly web series.

Something else happened in 2020 – although it had been percolating for some time;  the definition of “folk music “ got bigger. From the twang and banjos of Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and The Black Banjo Reclamation Project, we saw not-so-bluegrass bands like Fantastic Negrito, Los Coast, and Yola. After all, it had become  Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2003, and been evolving its  genre range ever since, sneaking in bands like Los Lobos, The Meat Puppets, and Robert Plant between the banjos and mandolins.

So I was both happily surprised and not so surprised to see that the lineup for this weekend’s multi-city live broadcast of HSB included my friends Las Cafeteras – who bring a whole different range of folk music to HSB.

If you don’t now Las Caf, instead of banjos and mandolins and washboards, they play the jarocho – a donkey jawbone,  the jarana — a small 8-string guitar, and the marimbol – an AfroCuban  instrument built around a funky wooden box with metal keys.  There is also a drumkit, a keyboard, and guitars. But Las Caf’s piece-de-resistance is the zapateado,  an amplified box on which various band members dance with wooden heels to provide a beat.

While they are a long way from Appalachia or even the South  – although they have killed at SWSX – Las Caf does  play folk music, but it’s from Veracruz and other musical regions of Mexico. They played a full set in both English and Spanish, including their latest release, “Oaxaca Love Song #2””,  a paeon to the tlayuda comida of that city- a large flat taco with mouthwatering ingredients that can vary by the block.  

This weekend’s HSB went beyond Mexican folk and Spanish lyrics. In addition to  stalwarts like Emmylou Harris, Dustbowl Revival, and Hawktail, this weekend’s HSB features Ani DeFranco with the HSB Lesbian Band, the experimental pop band Bachelor, the Seratones with Alynda Searra, and The Soul Rebels.

We aren’t Kansas anymore, and it sure  is fun. Catch it Saturday and Sunday night on Facebook and YouTube – look for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2021, or search for HSB TV on Roku or Applet TV. Or catch the YouTube videos.

Patrick O’Heffernan



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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (485 Articles)
Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist based in Mexico, with a global following. He focuses on music in English and Spanish that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America, especially Mexico like cumbia, banda, son jarocho, and mariachi. He is also edits a local news website and is a subeditor of a local Spanish language newspaper. Check out his weekly column Music Sin Frontera on Sunday nights.

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