Hardly Strictly Bluegrass brings the South to the North Bay

Maddie Loebbaka

As I first walked into Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB), the plucky notes of a banjo already reaching my ears, I confirmed that the cowboy boots on my feet were a good choice. As I pushed myself further into the growing crowd of music lovers, I was almost overwhelmed by the diversity and activity of the scene: older couples dancing happily together, parents relaxing with children on blankets in the shade, the colorful parrot perching leisurely on a woman’s shoulder. The welcoming environment invited a plethora of visitors from all across the Bay Area and beyond to join in the musical celebration.

I wove around people as I followed the signs, “Pickers and Pluckers,” that guided me towards the first stage. After reaching dead ends, asking for directions and getting lost in the greenery of Golden Gate Park, I finally reached one of the largest stages at the festival: Banjo Stage. Bill Kirchen and his acoustic band were serving up beautiful, simple riffs on an electric guitar which—although it sounds completely contrary to a grassroots music vibe—only added to the soulful, unique blend that Kirchen played for the crowd. Kirchen has been a bluegrass musical institution since the 1960s, and it was clear by the growing crowd that his influence hasn’t faded. His most recent album is “Transatlanticana” from 2016, and it appears that his music career is nowhere close to ending. 

The day continued with a slow, relaxed pace, surrounded by good music and kind visitors. I moved on to the Swan Stage where the Pimps of Joytime were beginning their set. Moonalice had just finished their performance and was handing out free posters to eager fans. I settled down for the show on a blanket in the shade and listened to the Pimps of Joytime’s eclectic performance. The lyrics of their songs held sweet and optimistic messages, reminiscent of Sheryl Crow at the peak of her career, but the beats had a strong funky tone that encouraged listeners to dance. Active since 2005, the Pimps of Joytime is just getting into their musical groove and has a bright future ahead, catering to multiple music demographics. 

Photo Courtesy of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

I finished the day by weaving through the last stages left of my visit, Porch Stage and Rooster Stage, to get a final taste of the music before leaving for the day. I listened in passing to Nashville-born Rayland Baxter, who—with experience from touring with impressive bands such as The Lumineers—finds inspiration from hip-hop, rock and pop artists such as The Beatles and Mac Miller. In fact, Baxter came out with a complete Mac Miller cover album over the summer to pay tribute to the artist that inspired much of his current songwriting. After performing in sold-out arenas across the world, Baxter holed up in an abandoned rubber factory in Kentucky and wrote his album “Wide Awake.” His steady, raspy vocals remind me of a Hozier with less depth but just as much emotion. Or perhaps a Mac Demarco turned country. However you see Baxter’s music, it’s clear his path is no ordinary one, and one to be watched at that. 

Finally, as I was just about to exit the pearly gates of Hardly Strictly, the tunes from an unknown source pulled me back in. There, at Porch Stage—the unlikely underdog of performances—played a band completely different from those I had heard earlier in the day. “DakhaBrakhah” was their name, meaning “give/take” in an old, forgotten Ukranian dialect. From Kyiv, Ukraine, the unique quartet was founded at a contemporary art event, where the four met and combined their previous knowledge of Ukrainian folk music with an advantageous goal of making music so ethnocentric that it crosses boundaries and oceans. Dressed in tall, furry hats (think British Royal Guard) and patterned red, black and white long dresses, the band kept the crowd involved with a theatrical performance. The music provided a powerful, rhythmic beat and a chant of lyrics that kept people listening. 

I drove away from the festival tired to the bone with ears ringing, but with a newfound knowledge of dozens of unique, talented small bands and artists. Go to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for the food, the people-watching and the relaxing setting—but most importantly, go to give a listen to the up-and-coming bands that deserve all the recognition and attention as the songs on the radio.