You can't just go into a festival with more than 80 acts on the lineup willy-nilly. You need a plan, a strategy, a set of reasonable goals. But given the sprawling stages, and the musical variety at hand, how should you do that with Hardly Strictly? Let us help. Here are four basic strategies for approaching the festival, each with three days' worth of performers to catch. Whether you want to see young upstarts, big names, or Hardly Strictly regulars — or you simply want to maximize music while minimizing time spent wading through crowds — these agendas should help.
Younger and Rowdier:
You're not super into old-school bluegrass, but are in search of edgy lyrics, electric guitars, and performers who max out at twice your age.
Low: Twenty years into its career, Minnesota's Low remains as elusive as ever. Its music has been branded post-rock, slowcore, and straight-up indie-rock, but it doesn't easily submit to simplistic labeling. Expect gorgeous vocal harmonies, moments of pin-drop quiet escalating through crescendos of thundering drama, and incredible musicianship. Also, humorous and humble banter from the members themselves. 2:35 p.m. at the Arrow Stage.
The Evens: Ian MacKaye is best known for leading straight-edge punk legends Minor Threat and Fugazi, but the Evens is his somewhat more relaxed duo with Amy Farina. MacKaye plays baritone guitar and Farina plays drums, they both sing, and the result is a quietly tense, negative-space-filled take on the rock duo. 3:20 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
First Aid Kit: If you're inclined to be skeptical of a twentysomething Swedish duo playing haunting, heartworn Americana, relax. First Aid Kit comes co-signed by Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, and deservedly so: The songs on its U.S. debut, The Lion's Roar, propel forward with an ache and tenderness that belies both the Söderberg sisters' years and their homeland. 4:30 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
Sonny and the Sunsets: Sonny Smith is like contemporary San Francisco's Jonathan Richman, a funny, fearlessly creative singer, songwriter, and visual artist whose songs veer from tear-in-beer country-western to straight-up rock 'n' roll, with lyrics about science-fictional romances, murderous skin cream, and the travails of life in East Oakland. 11:40 a.m. on the Towers of Gold Stage.
Mark Lanegan: Lanegan was playing with Kurt Cobain before Cobain was Cobain. Co-founder of the Screaming Trees, he channels the darkness of familiar tropes — weird family, drug problems — into rock and out in stranger directions still. You may recognize Lanegan's whispered baritone from his work with Queens of the Stone Age, but his most interesting stuff is the solo work, as deep and lonesome a sound as you can hope to get — blues, really, which is where all rock musicians end up if they live long enough. 1:25 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.
Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside: Approximately 74 percent of what makes a throwback rock outfit memorable is the sound of its vocalist, and by that standard, Sallie Ford has a bright future. Her voice can slide from low and seductive to high and stinging in a measure or less, and always wears a shred of vulnerability. Her band summons an energetic grit to match. 1:25 p.m. on the Porch Stage.
Allah-Lahs: There's a brand of vintage rock 'n' roll that pretty much couldn't exist without the help of spring reverb from old Fender amplifiers, and that's what the Allah-Las specialize in. Their reliance on the damp, iconic echo effect is almost a crutch, but the pop tunes that result are so surfy and crisp that you can't help but let the L.A. quartet get away with it. 11:45 a.m. on the Towers of Gold Stage.
The Devil Makes Three: Ragtime, rockabilly, bluegrass, blues, folk punk: No matter what you call it, the Devil Makes Three has honed its skills over the years into a lively, foot-tapping, dance-inducing acoustic band. The Santa Cruz trio is made up of guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino, and guitarist and tenor banjo player Cooper McBean. While their ode to Jack Daniels whiskey, "Old No. 7," remains a crowd favorite, keep your ears peeled for "Shades," "Bangor Mash," and "Do Wrong Right." 2:45 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
The Brothers Comatose: One of San Francisco's best young folk-bluegrass bands, the Brothers Comatose are building a national name for themselves on the strength of songs that are alternately raw, rowdy, mournful, and sweet. See our interview with the band on Page 7. 1:25 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
The Big Names
Hardly Strictly is free, so of course you want to see the most famous and/or worthwhile performers you can. Not all these artists are huge, but many are, and the rest deserve to be.
Bonnie Raitt: Does Bonnie Raitt really need an introduction? Is there a more famous female blues guitarist? Is there a more respected one? Are you really going to pretend that you won't enjoy hearing "Something to Talk About" live in Golden Gate Park? Do you not remember how great a singer Raitt is, too? Geez, why don't you just get out there already? 5:45 p.m. on the Banjo Stage.
Calexico: The city is in California, but the duo named for it is based in Tucson, where Joey Burns and John Convertino rope together a panorama of influences — American folk, Ennio Morricone, Latin brass, and way more — into a music as diverse and lively as the Southwest itself. Atmospheric, evocative, and always surprising, Calexico certainly deserves its spot closing things out on Friday. 5:45 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.
Father John Misty: You'd have to be crazy to quit the super-popular beardo-folk outfit Fleet Foxes in order to go solo, and J. Tillman is certainly crazy. But as Father John Misty, he's also shown himself to be possibly brilliant. His 2012 solo debut, Fear Fun, is less sappy and more compelling than most recent Fleet Foxes material, and Tillman himself is a quirky and unpredictable presence onstage and in interviews. He's right to want the spotlight for himself. 4:15 p.m. on the Arrow Stage.