“Don’t forget what this city stands for… freedom, love, independence, rebellion..!” Patti Smith shouted at us at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (on Sunday, October 3) as the San Francisco crowd at the Golden Towers stage cheered, after some helter skelter clapping and dancing along to “People Have the Power.” We had come to her set late, and spent about 15 minutes navigating our way through the motley crowd of tens of thousands: hippies, punks, bluegrass lovers, folk and country fans, older folk and college kids, couples and their dogs, and families with babies in strollers, to find an opening in the middle.
I could hear her voice faintly from the streets outside the Golden Gate Park when we arrived and felt that moment of surrealness. When you’ve waited years to see someone you’ve idolized, and when you do, the dreams you had about it seem more real. I found myself between a thin, 50 something hippie with a tye dye headband around his grey curls, and Talia. Patti looked better than I had ever seen in any of the recent pictures I had in the past 5 years, since following her in the 7th grade.
Classic blue denim tucked into rugged leather boots, a black coat over her usual black blazer, and that hair, she exuded effortlessly cool and rebel as only Patti can. She is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen or known. It’s not because of her looks or the way she dresses or being a legend, yes, she’s beautiful in those ways too; especially since it’s not the conventional type, but more in the way she is. Her voice, whether she was singing or talking was as strongly evocative as it had always been – poignant at times, low and high, smooth and rough. The voice of a poet.
She doesn’t make much small talk, everything she tells the audience is meaningful and sincere. Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and Lenny Kaye (guitarist) who had been playing with Patti since the 70s were sharp throughout along with Tony Shanahan (piano and bass) and Jackson Smith (guitar). “Pissing in the River,” “Because the Night,” and “Gloria” were performed at the end of the hour long set. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine – maybe they were Bill Graham’s?” she joked during “Gloria”.
The crowd matched the band’s passion and energy from song to song, in a way that I hadn’t seen at past concerts that I’ve attended. As I watched her turn her back to exit the stage, I could only think, “That was Patti Smith.”
From the Golden Towers Stage, we tried to find our way to Emmylou Harris. The smell of cigarettes and a little bit of alcohol mingled in the forest autumn air as mist and fog layered around the high trees, adding to the relaxed vibes. Countless dogs and plenty of little babies were encountered on our long walk on dirt pathways. I passed by one gentleman in a light wash denim jacket,blonde quiff and Morrissey glasses circa 1992.One of the best things about music festivals, especially in San Francisco, is the eclectic range of fashions and styles. Fine examples of vintage and counterculture looks prevailed. The well dressed and the cool raggedy -worn outfitted would’ve had any style blogger stop in their tracks. I am proud to say that SF is one of the most uniquely dressed places in the world, and HSBG is one of the best opportunities to view the distinct sartorial rebel styles of the city. The crowd was diverse which reflected the numbers. Over 600,000 had come over the weekend, and 350,000 showed up that day, making for one of the largest turnouts the festival had seen.
At the Banjo stage, we saw a similar pattern as we did at Patti Smith –- the teenagers and college students were farther in the back while the older crowd was up front. Somehow, being small enough to rush through the sides of the crowd, through people and their picnics of weed and wine, and sleeping dogs “excuse me pardon me sorry!” Talia and I ended up almost front row, right in the middle, and just behind a row of audience members in lawn chairs.
Right on time, two minutes later Warren Hellman was introducing her. We were easily and by far, the youngest in that specific section of the crowd – the only teenagers, standing out clearly, and we could not have been any prouder to be seeing Emmylou Harris. I did not think that the first time I would get to see Emmylou, that I would be that close, that it would be on her 10th anniversary HSBG performance, or that I would be mere feet away as Warren Hellman announced Mayor Newsom’s declaration of that day as Emmylou Harris day in San Francisco. Appearing in a simple sombre top, pink scarf and skirt, and ‘Tennessee snow white’ hair, Emmylou was the very definiton of lovely.
She picked up that beautiful acoustic Gibson and opened with “My Songbird”. As the set went on, melodies were laid out in warm Southern candor by the whole band.
Her guitarist caught my attention as well, he smiled affably throughout the set in an elegant red blazer and played gracefully with Emmylou and his bandmates. They performed “Easy From Now on,” “Two More Bottles of Wine,” and “Jupiter Rising” to name a few. Couples danced in the field with arms wrapped around each other throughout the night, and the 10th year of a tradition came to a close.
You have to go to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to truly experience its soul, the free spirit of the bay area, channeled by the music and the audience.
*more videos and more photos are available on HSBG on Facebook.
*more photos from the author’s HSBG flickr set.