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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2023 - Golden Gate Park (San Francisco, CA) - September 30th, 2023

9 October 2023

All photos by Sammy Braxton-Haney

Day two at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass saw the sun come out early, raising spirits and sunscreen usage. Over at The Arrow Stage, deadramones started the day ragged but right with a punk rock burr to their sound. A vocal fan base sang along and conversed with the band between numbers, making the performance feel like a club date.

McCrary Sisters, a gospel music trio from Nashville, Tennessee, came out swinging on The Rooster Stage. They took the funk of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and added a gospel feel, which got audience members dancing. They performed several times at this year’s festival and hopefully will be back again.

Laurie Lewis, who has played at every Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, brought her band The Right Hands with her this year. A highlight was the twin fiddle lines on Lewis’ “Quaking Aspen”. This bluegrass foursome also hit their stride with dueling banjos on “The Pika Song”, and Lewis’ enthusiasm was palpable throughout their set.

Leyla McCalla played a number of songs from her latest release, Breaking the Thermometer. A nationally known performer, her mix of Haitian and Creole musicality is spellbinding. Whether performing at The Towers of Gold or talking about her history at Horseshoe Hill, McCalla was a welcome addition to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Syd Straw had the crowd on her side during her set at the Arrow Stage. A musician and singer/songwriter with an extensive career in the business, Straw left the audience in stitches, reminiscing about her mother’s messed up love live on “Love and the Lack of It”, and sounding vindictive on “Casually”. A true Renaissance woman, she has also acted in Tales of the City, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete.

It is always a treat to hear the high lonesome sound of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s voice floating overhead at the festival. Moving with ease between his classic “Dallas” to “Borderland” with Dave Alvin, Gilmore and his crack band were in the pocket on the slower numbers and pushing the gas on the rockers.

Bettye LaVette opened her set with “Things Have Changed” a sobering, soulful tale of a world gone wrong, and she wrung all the emotion out of it. A blues/R&B/soul legend, LaVette spent the better part of her set playing songs from her new album, written by Randall Bramblett. Backed by a top-notch band, the diminutive LaVette owned the stage, and gave wry commentary on her life between numbers.

Third Mind is a new project from Dave Alvin and Victor Krummenacher, featuring vocalist Jesse Sykes in a truly psychedelic setting. The announcement that this was their first official gig meant excitement was high for this five-piece. They presented hard-charging acid-tinged rock mixed with more quiet acoustic-based numbers and overall, it was an impressive debut.

Rickie Lee Jones sang up a storm on the Banjo Stage, offering her takes on “One More for My Baby (and One More For The Road)” as well as Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids”. Just as the crowd got comfortable with the covers, “Last Chance Texaco” is delivered and suddenly we are all transported back to 1979, the year of Jones’ debut album. The artist was positively radiant in the late afternoon sun.

Back at the Arrow Stage, Omara ”Bombino” Moctar and band sent a charge through the crowd with their take on desert blues. The Tuareg performer brought passion to his vocals and a fire to his guitar playing. If he returns to the festival, this Grammy-nominated musician will need to be presented on a bigger stage.

In the waning hours of the afternoon, Australian band, The Church, took to The Swan Stage for a set of melancholic reverb-drenched jangle. Not surprisingly, the metronomic “Metropolis” and the spectral beauty of “Under the Milky Way” were clear highlights. Surrounded by fervent Church fans, it was hard not to feel like it was the late 80s all over again.

Irma Thomas just might be the most accommodating R&B/soul legend in existence. Coming on stage to a clearly amped-up crowd, Thomas proceeded to take requests from the audience and adjust her set accordingly. “Just Got Over”, “Time Is on My Side”, “Hey Pocky Way” and, of course, “Iko Iko” were all delivered by the legendary Soul Queen of New Orleans. She even led the crowd in a short lesson on how to wave a handkerchief to get yourself some attention. It was a warm musical embrace before the crowd set off for the night.