Steve Martin kicked off his national tour in support of The Crow at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returned to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for its ninth year. The free festival, which has grown to draw artists and fans from around the country and the world, is among the finest in the country. It’s put on every Indian Summer – the first weekend in October — by billionaire financier and banjo-picker Warren Hellman as a gift to the city. As always, there was too much to see to see it all.

And this year, HSB added a sixth stage to those nestled amid the park’s firs, Eucalyptus trees, rolling meadows and canyons. The sun was hot, the shade cold – generating zephyrs that whipped across the festival carrying black duststorms from the summer-dried forest.

The fest started Friday morning, with a set for local schoolkids by Oaklander M.C. Hammer. Hardly bluegrass, at all. But Poor Man’s Whiskey, Tom
Morello (aka the Nightwatchman), John Prine, and Lyle Lovett played sets more in line with the festival’s core mission.

The crowds were thick Saturday – and human traffic jams at crossings and choke points squelched some of the festival’s usual mellow vibe.

Former local legend Jorma Kaukonen played acoustic fingerstyle blues with Barry Mitterhoff accompanying on mando, tenor guitar, and dobro at the folky Rooster Stage.

Later that afternoon, Steve Earle – among the festival’s mainstays – hosted a Songwriter Circle with his wife Allison Moorer, Dar Williams, and former Rage against the Machine frontman Tom Morello in his acoustic incarnation as the Night Watchman. The four traded off playing hard-edged political folksongs in the round – one of the festival’s most powerful sets. Folk guitar legend Richie Havens followed, regaling the crowd with softspoken tales of meeting Bob Dylan at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village in the early 60s scene.

On the main stage, the Banjo stage – this year centered mostly on straight bluegrass – Tim O’Brien played it celtic-style, before Steve Martin – yes, that Steve Martin – took the stage on banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Martin played pretty straight bluegrass, mostly his own originals. But to close, he led the band through the traditional “Orange Blossom Special” – and, finally in perhaps a nod to his old friend on exhibit further up the park at the De Young Museum, Martin responded to his band’s tight harmonies thus:

Martin: Goin down to Florida
Band: Floridaaaaaaaaaaa!
Martin: And get some sand in my shoes. Or maybe California
Band: Californiaaaaaaaaa!
Martin: King Tut!

Festival regulars Gillian Welch and David Rawlings took the banjo after Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and played both Welch and David Rawlings Machine tunes. Emmylou Harris sang “Go To Sleep Little Baby” – best known from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack – a capella with them as a trio. Later, the Old Crow Medicine Show joined in for “Monkey and the Engineer” – and Harris returned to join the big group for the Band’s “The Weight.”

On Sunday, the big guns of bluegrass held court all day on the big Banjo Stage. Doc Watson fingerpicked and flatpicked with cohort David Holt and his own grandson Richard Watson, himself now a grandfather, making Doc a Great Grandfather, he told the crowd amid his storytelling between songs. Watson, pale, white-haired, and all in black, explained learning the Gershwin Brothers’ “Summertime” from listening to Mahalia Jackson records – then picked through it.

Bluegrass originator Earl Scruggs led his band through the standards. The Del McCoury Band took requests from the tens of thousands of fans filling Speedway Meadow as far as the eye could see. Ralph Stanley sang “O Death” a capella and “White Dove” with his own grandson, Nathan Stanley.

Through the woods, Mavis Staples led a tight, stripped-down soul outfit – guitar, bass, drums, and three backup singers – through powerful blues and gospel numbers. She told the crowd about her father, Pops Staples, announcing that the family group would be joining the Civil Rights Movement, and playing before Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches – and sang a deep, supernatural version of “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” with guitarist Rick Holmstrom laying out sheets of haunted blues reverb. She led the band through a joyous take on the civil rights anthem “Freedom Highway” as well as the hit “I’ll Take You There.”

Members of the punk band X united in their L.A. hipster country configuration The Knitters, playing country standards (“I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail”) and their own tunes (“Poor Little Critter On The Road”), as well as guitarist Dave Alvin’s own solo number “Dry River.”

The Berklee School of music awarded Emmylou Harris an honorary Doctorate on the big stage before her set – which spanned her canon, including tunes she sang with Gram Parsons (“Return of the Grievous Angel”), and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” (both Parsons and Van Zandt are among this festival’s lodestars), and her own tunes like “Red Dirt Girl.”

Meanwhile, the Old Crow Medicine Show were whooping it up in the dark between the trees in the narrow gap around the Rooster Stage, stompin’ through the dope runner’s holler “Alabama High Test” and “Caroline.” Little Feat were squeezing the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” into “Dixie Chicken”, and Amadou and Maryam left their crowd dancing and cheering into the dark as the just-past-full harvest moon rose over the park.