Naked feet sprint through Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park – a distant echo of familiar songs splintering the air as a cacophony of hipsters and old-timey folk listen and share their wares. Just a few more leaps through the thicket of eucalyptus, and we barely arrive at the edge of the “Towers of Gold” stage. My right hand is now pouring red wine, the left slapping my knee to the psychedelic sound of Dr. Dog, just one of the 81 musical performances at this year’s bluegrass weekend festival in San Francisco, Hardly Strictly.
“…Is this the worst trip you have ever been on?…”
The harmonic lyrics from Dr. Dog’s “Worst Trip,” off of We All Belong burn in my ears. Any hesitations I had about buying a one-way ticket to the city by the bay suddenly dissipate: Dr. Dog, Billy Bragg, Neko Case, Black Crow Medicine Show in one day, for free.
“…Sometime. Sometime. Sometime…”
Although Dr. Dog is hardly bluegrass, the genre seems to follow the eight-piece band wherever they go. My companion tells me of the time he saw the Philadelphia-based band play this past summer at another celebration of bluegrass –the Pickathon fest in Portland, where one band member unabashedly announced something to the effect of, “I’m not sure why we’re here, but I’m sure glad we came!” Formerly of Park the Van (they signed to Anti- this summer), Dr. Dog recently debuted Fate, an eclectic record rich with three-part harmonies, diminished chords and soulful rock ‘n’ roll.
“…Well I…like it….”
The actual dogs are ubiquitous here. Growling greyhounds strapped with backpacks and yappy miniatures inside their owner’s backpacks. Lively, full of spit.
A few hours later, even Neko Case expresses her canine excitement.
“It’s an honor to be here…And thank you for bringing your dogs!” she exclaims at the beginning of her show on the “Star” stage, adjacent to the “Tower of Gold.” Case coddles the audience with compliments – “You are so civilized here in San Francisco – bringing your dogs and showing up for free! “
The crowd cheers and the dogs bark. Case’s red hair blazes against the setting sun as she begins “I’m an Animal” off of Middle Cyclone, which she performs with her band of “boyfriends.”
“And yes, there are things that I’m still so afraid of… But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun…”
The sky is beginning to get dimmer, and the music melodies onward. Case’s voice increases in intensity with every note.
“I’m an animal, you’re an animal, too…”
A glassy-eyed girl offers me a ganja cookie. A couple with top hats takes portraits of one another with a disposable camera.
I make my way to the “Rooster” stage. Black Crow Medicine Show, a medley of banjo, fiddle, guitar and upright bass, will play next. Droning reverb and pristine percussion abut the raw rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the San Francisco-based duo The Ferocious Few, who block the lonely dirt pathway, where they have set up an impromptu performance.
“This crazy love we’re making. Well…I feel my little heart breaking…”
Singer and guitarist Francisco Fernandez mouths “Crazy Love” into his mic, an ethereal cloud of distortion trailing every word. Drummer Daniel Aguilar meditates on the rhythm from his tom tom.
“And I know there’s no place for me, but here on my own…”
A man with a blue top hat dances toward them, drops a few bills into a jar and takes one of their records organized within a guitar case. I’m considering purchasing a CD when the two police officers abruptly stop their music. “Nooooooo,” the audience of passersby cries. “Bull shit!” A tall man with a mustache yells. “Let them play!” The minor note stings from Fernandez’s guitar as the police escort him off to the side to discuss their alleged crime.
Suspense builds. Nerves tighten. It is dark and cold, and once bare feet are now snug inside warm shoes. It is time to turn in. We cross the park, passing dancers and dogs, musicians and guitars, whiskey and weed.
The worst trip? – hardly.