By Baron Lane
Nearly 250,000 music lovers attended the 12th Annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, three days of free premier roots music featuring more than 80 acts on six stages across Hellman Hollow, formerly Speedway Meadow, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It was renamed Hellman Hollow in 2011 in tribute to the festival's founder and benefactor Warren Hellman, who died in December 2011 at age 77 from complications resulting from leukemia.
This first post-Hellman event was anything but a somber affair. Many performers offered their praises in honor of Hellman and asked the crowd to voice theirs, which they enthusiastically obliged. The Hellman commemoration was complete with performances by his band the Wronglers with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and special guests the Go To Hell Man Clan, a band comprised of Hellman family members.
Texas was represented with the dusty harmonies of the Trishas, followed by the rowdy Reckless Kelly. Legendary country singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker put the crowd in a trance with performances of songs such as "Mr. Bojangles." The Flatlanders — an Americana super group from Lubbock, Texas, featuring Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock — brought their collective talents to a performance that brought the crowd to its feet.
Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant performed with fellow Band Of Joy member Patty Griffin. Picking up the harmonica, Plant literally blew the audience away as he joined Buddy Miller's set for "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go" with Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Victoria Williams. Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones made a surprise appearance to play mandolin alongside bluesman Seasick Steve, who drew a huge crowd with his closing set.
Local bands made their presence felt as Jeremy D'Antonio and his band Tiny Television delivered a spirited performance to an enthusiastic crowd. Fellow Bay Area resident Boz Scaggs organized a tribute to Texas' legendary singer/songwriter the late Doug Sahm with the Doug Sahm's Phantom Playboys, which consists of Texans Steve Earle, Delbert McClinton, Jimmie Vaughan, and "honorary Texan" Dave Alvin.
Southern California was represented by the Knitters, an incarnation of the legendary Los Angeles punk band X. Singer Exene Cervenka and bassist John Doe performed revved-up country-tinged versions of X classics while guitarist Alvin wailed on guitar.
Next was GRAMMY winner Dwight Yoakam, who shimmied and twirled across the stage, reminding the crowd that he can still master the craft of song and performance. Folk-rock trio the Lumineers' spirited performance wowed a capacity crowd as fans lovingly sang along.
The event was capped with festival veteran Emmylou Harris, who took the stage with her Red Dirt Boys to a still-rowdy crowd. GRAMMY winners the Civil Wars also performed to a packed crowd. "This is the most people we've ever performed in front of," said singer/songwriter and guitarist John Paul White.
As the California sun sank over the towering trees and the Pacific Ocean, the beautifully weary voice of Harris and the soaring harmonies of White and Joy Williams met under the smiling spirit of Warren Hellman, who surely would have approved.
(Baron Lane is a Bay Area-living ex-pat Texan. You can read his thoughts on Americana/roots music at www.twangnation.com. He is also the official GRAMMY.com Community Blogger for the Americana genre. He's onry, but good-natured.)