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Woodland Creatures: Identifying the Various Musical Species at This Year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 

Tuesday, Sep 30 2014
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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman has sadly been gone for three years, but his epic gift to the city of San Francisco continues to thrive.

This annual free festival in Golden Gate Park draws roughly half a million concertgoers from all over the nation to drink in the sounds of almost 100 world-class bands, most of which explore the massive range of the American folk-roots tradition with both reverence and imagination. Here are our totally subjective "top picks" (feel free to tell us your own!) for this year's festival (Oct. 3-5).

OLD-SCHOOL MASTERS

Ralph Stanley said last year that he was hanging up his tour bus keys. Thankfully, it appears the nearly 90-year-old bluegrass pioneer misspoke. He's a mainstay of the festival, and after almost seven decades of singing and banjo-plucking in the dark hollers of Americana, he's still a must-see performer. If he breaks into an a cappella "Oh, Death," like he has in years past, you better hang on to your heart with both hands.

Lucinda Williams is the Godmother of Country Soul. A respected songwriter and performer, she has a dirty voice that resounds with an ominous, iconoclastic power. Think Tom Waits, early Bob Dylan, or Odetta. There's an immediacy to her sound that's riveting, especially when it's just her vocal and acoustic guitar. Check out "Compassion" on her new album, Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. She's telling us something essential in this song: what it means to truly understand and connect with one another. It's a timeless folk music lesson, well worth hearing often and again.

In 1965, at the age of 23, Peter Rowan scored a coveted gig: the lead vocal and guitar spot in bluegrass founder Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Soon after, he partnered with Dave Grisman and Jerry Garcia for Old and in the Way. Since then, he's released nearly 50 albums in styles roving all over the musical map. The Twang An' Groove project he's bringing to HSB this year is a straight-up jam band that combos country twang, hippie psychedelics, and classic folksong.

Legend has it that in 2001, Warren Hellman added the "Hardly" to the first Strictly Bluegrass fest's moniker when he previewed Emmylou Harris' new sound at the time, which was more Bourbon Street than Grand Ole Opry. She's closed the event every year since — for good reason.

Bob Dylan once elucidated the virtues of John Prine in the pages of American Songwriter like so: "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree." Nuff said?

Dry Branch Fire Squad has been kicking around the bluegrass scene for almost four decades. Bandleader Ron Thomason essentially got his start as one of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. He picks a mean mandolin, guitar, and banjo, sings like a good ol' country boy, and is happy to tell tall tales all the livelong day.

NEXT-GENERATION LEADERS

One of the hottest string bands on the planet, Dave Rawlings Machine is helmed by Gillian Welch's lifelong music-making partner, who launched this project a few years back to explore traditional folk music and contemporary songwriting via a broader sonic palette than his dynamic duo with Welch allows. Rawlings is a sensitive vocalist and a master of melodic invention on acoustic guitar. For this HSB performance, he's teaming up with his faithful collaborator Welch, former Old Crow Medicine Show singer-guitarist Willie Watson, and John Paul Jones (yes, the Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist who kills on mandolin). Expect their set — especially their take on "Going to California" — to be a highlight of the weekend.

When Willie Watson left Old Crow Medicine Show a couple of years back, he basically said he wasn't vibing with the band's new direction as stars of the Grand Ole Opry. He didn't want to play to a click track in the studio and wasn't going to kowtow to the CMT status quo. He dug deep into his roots (and his 78 RPM vinyl collection) for his first solo album, Folk Singer Vol. 1. We're talking classic tunes like "Midnight Special" and "Stewball," along with way old-school blues from the likes of Memphis Slim and Richard "Rabbit" Brown. The record is a testament to both the power of this timeless music and Watson's artistic conviction. Each song is just one high-lonesome vocal and a single acoustic guitar or banjo. It's a haunting recording, and his performance promises to be one of the best of the fest.

No doubt due to popular demand, The Felice Brothers return to HSB again this year. Like the most relevant Noise Pop bands, this indie folk-pop-rock-country-whatever-who-cares ensemble is no slave to genre, balancing shoegaze chill with strong mid-tempo sway-alongs and Big Melody front and center. The musicians bring an uncommon warmth and sincerity to their songs. The sound is fun-loving, open, and generous like a gift. On the latest album, Favorite Waitress, there's some ugly guitar and dramatic banging on the 88s, but the real fun is in the offbeat, often chilling ballads. Be on the lookout for keyboard beast James Felice, as he slinks effortlessly from organ to piano to accordion.

Ryan Adams' new self-titled album blasted up the Billboard charts to the No. 4 spot upon its release a few weeks back. After 13 other solo recordings since 2000, this is by far the prolific singer-songwriter's greatest commercial success to date. The critical raves are rolling in along with high-profile gigs on the talk show circuit, including appearances on Jimmy, Ellen, and Conan. Sadly, the new record is bland, clearly designed for mainstream radio, and for a hard-working artist like Adams, maybe that's okay (this time around). It's doubtful he'll lose the respect of longtime fans and peers like Dave Rawlings, his co-writer on the highballin' tune, "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," from his first studio album, Heartbreaker. Let's hope he busts out this older tune along with "My Wrecking Ball," a moving acoustic ballad and the only ear-opening track on the new CD.

MUST-SEE NEW-SCHOOLERS

Few young musicians embody the bedrock communal spirit of the folk arts like Rising Appalachia. Led by Dirty South (ATL) sisters Chloe and Leah Smith, the multimedia collective puts on visionary, activist performances that not only promote green politics and conscious living but, perhaps most importantly, presents a feast for the ears and eyes. First, the sibling harmonies are almost too beautiful to bear. Then, you've got banjo, acoustic guitar, upright bass, hand percussion, maybe some beatboxing. It's a deep contemporary groove — pancultural, Modern Primitive, festival-friendly — closer to Afro-Cuban and hip-hop than Woody Guthrie, but of course Rising Appalachia's hellbent on killing fascists, too. Throw in some aerial dancing and First Peoples ritualism, and you've got a visual aesthetic as compelling as the sounds. Shout out for their update on the old-time church song, "I'll Fly Away." It will lift you off your feet.

Led by down-home millennial grrrl Alynda Lee Segarran, New Orleans combo Hurray for the Riff Raff has been steamrolling across the indie Americana folkscape for at least the past couple of years after its debut appearance at the storied Newport Folk Festival in 2013. Segarran's soulful, nostalgia-steeped, straight-to-the-marrow songcraft seems equally indebted to Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams. There's lots of country soul in her music, right alongside catchy singsong melodies and an old-time religious sincerity. "You physically feel better after listening to them," say Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope. "They sound like hope." Rare accolades, to be sure — and one-hundred-percent truth.

It's easy to dismiss multi-instrumental prodigy Sarah Jarosz if you've only heard her overproduced recordings, including the latest Build Me Up From Bones, too much of which is just shy of Muzak. However, the Appalachian power of "Fuel the Fire" and countless arresting live performances on YouTube attest to the 23-year-old's enormous talent as a singer, guitarist, mandolinist, and banjo slinger. She's mining newgrass territory with a New England Conservatory of Music plough. It's a virtuosic ambition in the line of Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer's improvisations. Thing is, she's better than that, if only she'd ditch the Ivory Tower for a brokedown mountain shack.

For the past couple of years, global party band Red Baraat has been firing up HSB fans in one of the first-of-the-day festival slots on Saturday or Sunday mornings. The band fuses East Coast go-go grooves — sun-bright horns and monster beats — with high-octane North Indian bhangra rhythms. It's back again this year, as if you need an excuse to pop that bottle before noon.

Lake Street Dive is white-girl soul singer Rachael Price's supersweet vehicle (upright bass, guitar, drums, a little horn here and there) to show the world what Amy Winehouse would've sounded like if she were a little more geeky, a little more capable of intimacy, and a lot less tortured. Special-request the Jackson 5 cover "I Want You Back."

Parker Millsap's songs dig into wayback gospel, acoustic blues, roadhouse country, and the kind of juke joint rock 'n' roll that calls to mind shiny ceiling balls and spinning prom gowns. His solo acoustic tunes are best. They're heartfelt and convincing, as if played by a good friend whose sorrow and dreams you know too well.

Led by the mighty brother-sister combo of Arleigh and Jackson Kincheloe, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds bust out big-horn funky-fresh soul from Brooklyn (via the Catskill Mountains, no less).

LOCAL LOVE

Poor Man's Whiskey is best known for its epic covers — "Sweet Child o' Mine," "Bohemian Rhapsody," a full set of Allman Brothers tunes, the entire Dark Side of the Moon album — all bluegrassed up and rocked out with lots of love and solid musicianship.

You're going to want to catch Bonnie "Prince" Billy & the Cairo Gang to see their special Bay Area guest vocalist Dawn McCarthy (of Faun Fables). Billy sings from the cobwebbed corner of the back porch, all sleepy and self-absorbed, while McCarthy's dreamy voice soars from the mountain tops. The combo will be mysterious and quite possibly magical.

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down are both cute and strong. Their tunes often "pop" in the sweetest sense of the term, but band leader Thao Nguyen is also a freakish force of nature. Let her pull you in close for a kiss on the acoustic numbers, then thrash you about with her amped-up guitar.

San Francisco indie Americana fans well know The Sam Chase, awarding the high-energy strings-plus-drums ensemble top honors in 2013 readers' polls in both SF Weekly (Best Band) and the Bay Guardian (Best Singer-Songwriter).

WILD CARDS

Every year, the HSB bookers feature a few unlikely bands that don't quite belong but manage to somehow blend in with the festival's rootsy merrymaking. The top misfits of 2014 include pioneering SoCal punk outfit Social Distortion, enduring pop rockers Built to Spill, and indie trip masters Yo La Tengo.

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