It is again a great honor and privilege to be able to bestow many of the great musicians and participants of the 2018 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival with the prestigious Pelican Cafe Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Awards. We have been giving these awards out for at least the last five years, and this year the committee had a hard time agreeing on some of the winners. So many acts! So little time!
Usually early October in San Francisco has people dialed into a local professional baseball team as the playoff games often conflict with the festival, but not this time. By the time the festival began, the scrappy Oakland A’s had already lost a one game wildcard playoff game to the Yankees, so the baseball distraction was never to be. The San Francisco Giants season was pretty much over by the All-Star game.
Instead, the mood was rather one of shock as the only score that seemed to matter was the game in the U.S. Senate – it was on many people’s minds. Brett Kavanaugh, with a 50-48 vote was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and once again the voices of women were disregarded and ignored. The court now has added a very mediocre mind, accused sexual molester and rapist, conservative partisan ideologue to the court and you can safely say that the “old boys network” is still in charge. One can only hope that the midterm elections puts more woman and progressives in the upper echelons of government. I am not optimistic. We are an illiterate populous and our media is controlled in such a way that the narrative is often scripted by the wealthy plutocrats and truth is in short supply..
But to take a break from that madness and sorry state of affairs there is the 2018 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and what a great time it was.! Music is the best medicine.
BEST WAVES AT OCEAN BEACH: Friday Morning
I always begin the awards with a weather round up. The entire weekend during the festival experienced beautiful weather – sunny skies, and while the wind was strong out at the ocean from the northwest, it was actually not bad at the festival. In terms of surf, Friday morning before the wind came up was the best to be had. The waves were about 6-8 feet and really fun. After that, the wind picked up and it was all about the music.
BEST FESTIVAL DOG: The pleasant female pit bull hanging out on the main lawn at the banjo stage.
Talk about a chill dog and this dog was really fun to hang with. She just chilled on the lawn and nothing phased her at all. People walking by practically stepping on her, strange smells, food dropping all over the place. She was at the next blanket over and we enjoyed Dave Alvin, Mavis Staples and Allison Krauss together. Why does Dave Alvin play blues harmonica in first position, I will never know but it did not even get a howl out of this pooch.
BEST HORN SECTION: Booker T. and the three guys just nailing the classic tunes
The Booker T. show on Sunday at the banjo stage was packed with talent. Lead singers nailing the classic R&B tunes. The horn section, seemingly a bunch of youngsters, were never introduced but these guys sounded great and played with both power and dynamics. At festivals like this it is often the supporting characters that are what elevate the whole experience. The Booker T horn section was outstanding.
BEST SET THAT I ALMOST MISSED: Don Was
I was hanging out with friends on the Gold Stage when I heard this amazing trumpet player. Who could that be? Turned out it was Terrance Blanchard wailing away. I made a b-line to the Swan Stage and caught the set from the road which is a good perch to see what is really going on on stage. Then Bob Weir was invited into the jam and he sang a tune “Days Between.” Very cool!
THE BOB WILLS AWARD: Aki Kumar
Besides being a great harmonica player, Aki puts on a completely entertaining show. His style is what has been called Bollywood Blues and he sings these awesome songs in what I guess is in Hindi. He has the ability to lead a group, play and sing extremely well, communicate with the audience with joy and humor and keep every tune playing back to back just like Bob Wills did it with the Texas Playboys. His band often used the sitar. Talk about some cultural fusion! What is also cool about Aki’s approach is he really lets player take extensive solos.
BEST BANJO PLAYER AWARD: Tim O’Brien’s Banjo Player
I actually did not hear too many banjo players. The banjo player with Tim O’Brien’s band did not bother me too much. He gets the award.
BEST WOMAN TRIO: The Wailin’ Jennys
There seems to be more and more woman trios out there, singing great harmonies and pickin’ some fine mando. The Wailin’ Jennys put on a great set at the Swan Stage. Really good three part harmonies with some modern touches. They did an a capella versions of Paul Simon’s Love Me Like a Rock that was awesome.
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco is a little like Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Big-name bands, many kinds of music and a festive atmosphere. One of the amazing things about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is that even though there are tens of thousands of people, it is always a peaceful event, and in the end people seem to get along just fine and often make new friends. Everyone seems to pack out the trash pretty well too. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Warren Hellman’s party. Communal music therapy.