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All photos by Sammy Braxton-Haney
With the skronk of a saxophone, the psychedelic wash of electric guitar, and the pulsing of West African rhythms, Orchestra Gold kicked off Hardly Strictly Bluegrass on an overcast Friday, September 29th in Golden Gate Park. Lead singer, Mariam Diakite, roamed the stage, singing and dancing while the band sizzled through a vivacious set, trying their best to burn off the fog.
Over at the Swan Stage, Vetiver took a different approach, sauntering into the Friday afternoon with subdued vocals and slow grooves. Songs gently unspooled, featuring finger-picked arpeggios and bucolic vocals. New material was previewed, and it sounds like another step in Vetiver’s evolution.
Carrie Rodriguez returned to the festival and was in full command, moving seamlessly from the defiant “Z” (“I play a mean fiddle, been breaking it in ever since I was little”) to reminiscing about her aunt in “I Dreamed I Was Lola Beltrán”. Her performance was an early highlight, her vocal strength matched only by her fierce fiddle playing.
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram stormed through his electric, blues-soaked set at the Towers of Gold Stage. Playing songs from his latest album and wringing the life out of his Les Paul until it gave all that it could give, he capped off his performance by coming out into the crowd and taking an extended solo, electrifying all who were there.
John Craigie delivered a great monologue about the difference between touring in the summer versus the fall, seeing Neil Young, and how much the audience hates when an artist plays new material. Just when you think this tropical shirt-clad singer-songwriter has a Jimmy Buffet vibe going on, he throws out a song like “Part Wolf” (“I got that American meanness”) that keeps the audience guessing and whets the appetite for his forthcoming album.
Legendary Peter Rowan, the writer of “Panama Red”, was a warm presence in the now omnipresent fog drip that enveloped the park. Opening with “Til the Next Life Comes Along”, followed by “Panama Red”, and the “T-Bone Shuffle”, Rowan was clearly having a good time. A country great, Rowan has played with everyone from Bill Monroe to Jerry Garcia to David Grisman, and the crowd at the Rooster Stage fully embraced him.
The grit and twang of Lucero vocalist Ben Nichols was like a spicy cocktail on the still overcast day. The band was a juggernaut of taught emotion, held together by the single focus of Nichols’ lyrics. Highlight “Nights Like These”, a lovelorn paean to a past romance, clearly warmed the crowd and the band left the stage to huge applause.
Shakey Graves remains an enigma, whether playing solo or in a group setting. One minute he’s throwing shapes and mugging at the audience, the next he is peeling off ethereal guitar lines and delivering nuanced vocals with his exceptionally tight band. “Roll The Bones” was a highlight this afternoon on the Swan Stage, and Graves, reminiscent of a young Lowell George, let his freak flag fly high.
Dawes had their Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers vibe down with organ, dual guitars bass, and drums. As they came on, the sun finally broke through and bathed the stage in warm amber. The band tore into the set with long extended guitar solos from lead singer Taylor Goldsmith. Dawes capped off the first day in style and left the audience eager for more on Saturday.
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