Illustration by Adam McCauley
For its 11th year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass got even bigger, adding a full Friday lineup and pushing the usual pre-weekend festivities back to Thursday. That means you'll face an even more difficult time deciding whom to see at this sprawling, free music extravaganza. Moving between stages isn't always easy at the hugely popular festival, but here are some of the more than 90 artists especially worth catching this weekend.
Charlie Musselwhite: How does a white boy from Mississippi become a blues icon and Tom Waits' neighbor? Practice. Young Musselwhite played harmonica with Southern acoustic blues legends Furry Lewis and Big Joe Williams, and later migrated to Chicago for electric South Side grad school. His sizzling debut album became an FM radio hit in S.F.'s eclectic underground scene — in 1967 he visited the Bay Area for a month's work and decided to stay. Steadfastly devoted to the blues, yet not stuck in the past, Musselwhite also contributed to Waits' classic Mule Variations and the Into the Wild soundtrack. 11 a.m., Star stage. Mark Keresman
Kurt Vile and the Violators: Imagine Tom Petty in his most stoned and droning Zen-like state, and you'd get something like Philadelphia's Kurt Vile. In his songs, earthy '70s rock riffs meet folky '60s wide-open acoustic chords; deep, mumbled vocals deposit precious nuggets of troubadour wisdom, and the vibe never rises above strenuously mellow. Once a prodigious guitar player, Kurt Vile has shown the world he's also a songwriting force. 2:20 p.m., Rooster stage Ian S. Port
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy: Robert Plant's current incarnation as a folk singer is not far removed from his legendary work with Led Zeppelin, whose heaviest songs are clearly rooted in rural blues and mountain string music. The golden-locked vocalist comes home to his first love with Band of Joy, whose original songs are tuneful and tightly arranged. But the real treat in the live show will be classic Zeppelin acoustic tracks like "Thank You," "Ramble On," and "Over the Hills and Far Away." 5:45 p.m., Banjo stage Sam Prestianni
Broken Social Scene: This sprawling Canadian collective made a name for itself with soaring, surprisingly delicate rock anthems — and for helping launch the careers of Feist, among others. But after more than a decade, BSS is hanging it up for the indefinite future. Aside from an evening show at the Fillmore, Saturday's Hardly Strictly set will be Broken Social Scene's last North American date for a long time. We'd advise you to see them before the reunion. 3:25 p.m., Towers of Gold stage I.S.P.
Gillian Welch: Bay Area fans who've seen Welch's riveting performances with guitar-slingin' partner David Rawlings at nearly every Hardly Strictly festival will recognize a few titles on her new disc, The Harrow & the Harvest, especially the haunting anti-war ballad, "The Way It Goes." No one sings about disaffection, poverty, drug addiction, self-directed violence, and death like Welch. It'd be wrong to say the gray clouds in her tunes have silver linings, but they do sometimes sprout halos. 4:15 p.m., Banjo stage S.P.
Hugh Laurie: You likely know Hugh Laurie as the acerbic, brilliant diagnostician on the TV show House. You may have even seen him bust out some badass blues guitar at the end of an episode or two. But none of that will prepare you for Let Them Talk, the British artist's debut album. Dripping with New Orleans swamp grooves and barrelhouse rollick, his take on old-school blues, jazz, and pop tunes is almost too much fun. Laurie sings, picks the six-string, and pounds the piano keys with distinct charm. Dr. House would hate this guy. 1:20 p.m., Towers of Gold stage S.P.
Abigail Washburn: Formerly a banjoist for bluegrass band Uncle Earl, Abigail Washburn is a performer who embraces American traditional sounds to take them tenderly into the future. Her latest platter City of Refuge finds Washburn utilizing bluegrass and old-timey string-band elements in standard and unconventional ways. "Divine Bell" is like classic bluegrass gospel, and "Chains" is a forlornly glistening almost-rocker. Ancient to the future, indeed. 11 a.m., Towers of Gold stage M.K.
Laurie Lewis: One problem with being an "established" local performer is being taken for granted. Laurie Lewis is a Bay Area treasure — she's a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist (though fiddle is her specialty) who's effortlessly moved between traditional and progressive bluegrass, old-timey string band, folk, and country since the mid-'70s. Be a good neighbor and see her. 12:05 p.m., Banjo stage M.K.
The Devil Makes Three: Stomp and Smash is the title of this high-octane string trio's next live album, coming Oct. 25. There's a subtitle, too: "and Slash and Crash and Bash and Bust and Burn" — which might be a statement on how listeners respond to the band's anthemic singalongs: Their raggy, blues-steeped songs compel fans to kick up boots, hurl bottles against walls, and torch the complacency of the workaday world by any means necessary. 1:10 p.m., Arrow stage S.P.
Ralph Stanley: Bill Monroe "invented" bluegrass, and the duo-combo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs magnificently popularized the music, but Ralph Stanley (born 1927) is the standard bearer. Starting in the late 1940s with brother Carter (who passed away in 1966), the Stanley Brothers brought the gospel-infused, Appalachian-based string band sound to the mainstream. Carrying on, Stanley's consummate three-finger banjo style and poignant vocal wail influenced such performers as Dwight Yoakam, Gillian Welch, and Bob Dylan (all of whom guested on Stanley's 1998's double-CD Clinch Mountain Country). Give him the flowers while he's with us. 4:15 p.m., Banjo stage M.K.