Top Ten things about HSB 2013
1 It’s free. Yep, three days, six stages, a line-up better than Lollapalooza, zero dollars. And while there are many food vendors, they don’t sell any alcohol in the park. The surprising thing? You can bring your own. Thanks to founder Warren Hellman the festival will continue for years to come.
2 The people. I didn’t believe that they could possibly be as laid back as I’d been told, but they were. Despite the mass of humanity, everyone was happy, no one got stressed out, and they were happy to let you through, or to get off your blanket where they had been squatting while you left it unattended. It might have something to do with the constant scent of weed in the air, though that’s just a theory.
3 Low. I’ve never been much of a Low fan, might have something to do with getting shushed repeatedly at their show at Union South years ago (for the record, going to happy hour before a Low show is not a good idea), but today was different. “When did Low become an eight piece?” I asked a friend near the stage. “About two songs ago,” he replied, though he didn’t remember who it was that had joined them. Surprisingly, or maybe not being they are both from Duluth, it was Trampled by Turtles. Huh, another band I didn’t think I liked, definitely more than the sum of their parts.
4 Father John Misty. I also didn’t think I would like Father John Misty, but apparently HSB is all about surprises. I’d seen him solo years ago when he went under his own name and found him Buckner boring, and while I don’t necessarily hold him personally responsible for Fleet Foxes and their cloying harmonies, he was in the band. When I friend told me she thought I would like him, I stayed just to humor her. Funny thing is, she was right. The songs were involved yet catchy, and he was relaxed and charming. As some sort of statement about the saturation of Smartphone media, he played his entire set framed by a giant iPhone cut-out, so that every picture you took looked like you took a picture of someone’s phone.
5 Chris Isaak. It had been years since I had seen Isaak, but his show at the Madison Civic Center remains one of my favorites ever, and not just because he played the encore is a stunning disco ball suit. I hadn’t bought a CD in awhile, but I still knew many of the songs he played. “San Francisco Nights” was inevitable, but it was also great. “Wicked Game” and “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” were like old friends.
6 Nick Lowe. Just keeps getting cooler. Maybe that’s why his nickname is “Jesus of Cool.” In a festival full of impressive big bands, he played solo and stole the show, and my heart, again. It would be hard to sell a Christmas CD on the nicest, sunniest day San Fran had seen all year, but he did by playing us the “least Christmas-y” of the bunch. Also, “Cruel to Be Kind,” enough said.
7 Steve Martin. Steve Martin had a bigger crowd watching from backstage than any other act I’d seen all weekend. My friend Jason Toth had an explanation, “It’s different when they are actors.” Especially actors with some serious music chops. Martin has played the banjo as part of his act since his “wild & crazy guy” days, but with the Steep Canyon Rangers backing him they were a force to be reckoned with. The fiddle player in particular was incendiary. “Wow” was written on everyone’s face, backstage and for as far as the eye could see.
8 Jon Langford. His early Saturday set with Skull Orchard, which morphed into the Freakons (a mash-up of the Catherine Erwin/Janet Bean led Freakwater and his timeless punk band the Mekons) was one of the highlights of the fest. I love Langford’s swoon-worthy voice, but the Freakwater girls sounded great. Of course, his biggest competition came from his Mekons bandmate Sally Timms, possessor of the most beautiful country voice out there. Once I told him I would be attending my first ever Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, he asked if I could help out with merch at his two after-fest shows, Friday with the Freakons and Saturday opening for Billy Bragg. It would have been enough that the latter was at the legendary Great American Music Hall, but he also gave me a backstage pass for the festival. Once I saw the backdrop banner on the Banjo stage featuring his distinctive artwork honoring founder Warren Hellman, I realized he was a VIP at this festival.
9 Lagunitas. The California brewery provided two kinds of pale ale backstage, the easy drinking “daytime” ale and the stronger, equally delicious IPA. It’s like they know me. Having access to cold beer all day long was equaled by having clean, no line bathrooms. I can’t thank you enough Mr. Langford.
10 Conor Oberst. Maybe I was a little drunk, blame the Lagunitas, but this Conor Oberst set was the best thing I saw all weekend, maybe all year. It made me so ridiculously happy that I was smiling and almost crying (tears of joy) the entire time. Backed by the Felice Brothers, who had wowed me earlier in the day despite a history of disappointment, Oberst also brought up other guests from his “Conor Brings Friends for Friday” line-up, including the sweet voiced sisters from First Aid Kit. I’d missed them to watch Father John Misty, but despite the fact that they were girls, and that there were two of them, I think I would have liked them. I predict a non-stop diet of Bright Eyes in my future.