As Bush-era Secretary of Defense and aspiring Zen poet Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. That is, there are things we know we don't know, and things we don't know we don't know. This bit of mental furniture-arranging is worth keeping in mind this week, when a small cruise ship's worth of famous musicians will descend upon San Francisco for the 13th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
One thing we know we know, based on past years, is that many of these musicians will show up on local stages, billed and unbilled, for one-of-a-kind performances. One such unbilled surprise occurred on the Friday of Hardly Strictly last year, when, after performing at Golden Gate Park, Conor Oberst and friends like Jenny Lewis showed up at Outer Sunset watering hole the Riptide. Reports vary about how the set went, but Oberst himself giggles about it over the phone. "That just kind of popped up," he remembers. "It devolved into kind of a messy jamming situation, but that's the way it should be." After all, on the weekend of Hardly Strictly, these things happen naturally. "Everyone's in town, so there's all the sideshows, and a lot of times the people who play the festival will end up playing other shows that weekend," Oberst says. He's scheduled an official extracurricular appearance this year — a solo show at the Fillmore on Saturday night — but might he be making any other appearances? "I mean, no plans, but stranger things have happened for sure," he says.
Oberst is just one of many Hardly Strictly musicians who'll be performing outside of Hardly Strictly proper. Many details of the impromptu sets are hard to nail down in advance, but there's plenty that we know we know. For instance, Riptide owner Les James says to expect "surprise guests" from Hardly Strictly sitting in on the bar's regular Hillbilly Hootenanny show, which starts at 7 p.m. Sunday. And over on Clement Street in the Richmond District, the Plough and Stars will host its usual Hardly Strictly afterparty on Friday and Saturday nights, with acts like the Mountain Men and Little Country Giants performing. Those are the smaller sideshows. Here are some of the bigger ones.
Thursday, Oct. 3: Father John Misty at Slim's
The former Fleet Fox is notoriously unpredictable onstage and in interviews, but that's just part of his charm. Dude has so much charisma, in fact, that he can play San Francisco every few months and still draw a sizable crowd. Or maybe it's his beard that's the draw? Or his good looks? None of which is meant to denigrate Mr. John Tillman's first solo album, Fear Fun, which is a lot funnier and more humane and downright more enjoyable than, well, anything relating to Fleet Foxes, or a lot of recent beardo-folk.
Friday, Oct. 4: Freakons (Freakwater + The Mekons) at the Chapel
Freakons is such a great band name, it seems like it should be taken. (We can easily imagine someone shouting, "Get your Freakons! Get your Freakons!" as a crowd rushes toward a stage.) But this outfit is a collective rather than a proper band — in fact, it's a collaboration between members of British punk/roots cult heroes the Mekons and American alt-country outfit Freakwater, whose members are longtime fellow travelers and friends. What to expect? Well, lots of whiskey- and fiddle-soaked sing-alongs, for one thing. And as the musicians themselves have noted, whatever happens with Freakons onstage will be way better than anything a band called
Meekwater could do.
Saturday, Oct. 5: Billy Bragg at Great American Music Hall
We're thrilled to see Billy Bragg on the proper Hardly Strictly lineup, but to be perfectly honest, he's the kind of performer best appreciated on the inside of a dark club. Preferably one that's historic, ornate, and high-ceilinged, like Great American Music Hall. Certainly one of the greatest protest singers of our time, Bragg melds the radicalism and ferocity of punk with the compassionate populism of Woodie Guthrie and early Dylan, deploying humble and heartfelt lyrics in service of both the personal and the political.
Sunday, Oct. 6: Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle at the Chapel
A father-and-son gathering like this is truly in the spirit of Hardly Strictly. And given the senior Earle's vaunted status within the Hardly Strictly universe (as well as within American roots music in general), it seems more than likely that this Sunday will see some surprise appearances onstage at newish Mission venue the Chapel. Come for the Earle family beards and the beery tunes, and stay for whatever happens next.